Henri Poincare: A Scientific Biography

Henri Poincare: A Scientific Biography

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by Jeremy Gray
     
 

Henri Poincaré (1854-1912) was not just one of the most inventive, versatile, and productive mathematicians of all time—he was also a leading physicist who almost won a Nobel Prize for physics and a prominent philosopher of science whose fresh and surprising essays are still in print a century later. The first in-depth and comprehensive look at his many

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Overview

Henri Poincaré (1854-1912) was not just one of the most inventive, versatile, and productive mathematicians of all time—he was also a leading physicist who almost won a Nobel Prize for physics and a prominent philosopher of science whose fresh and surprising essays are still in print a century later. The first in-depth and comprehensive look at his many accomplishments, Henri Poincaré explores all the fields that Poincaré touched, the debates sparked by his original investigations, and how his discoveries still contribute to society today.

Math historian Jeremy Gray shows that Poincaré's influence was wide-ranging and permanent. His novel interpretation of non-Euclidean geometry challenged contemporary ideas about space, stirred heated discussion, and led to flourishing research. His work in topology began the modern study of the subject, recently highlighted by the successful resolution of the famous Poincaré conjecture. And Poincaré's reformulation of celestial mechanics and discovery of chaotic motion started the modern theory of dynamical systems. In physics, his insights on the Lorentz group preceded Einstein's, and he was the first to indicate that space and time might be fundamentally atomic. Poincaré the public intellectual did not shy away from scientific controversy, and he defended mathematics against the attacks of logicians such as Bertrand Russell, opposed the views of Catholic apologists, and served as an expert witness in probability for the notorious Dreyfus case that polarized France.

Richly informed by letters and documents, Henri Poincaré demonstrates how one man's work revolutionized math, science, and the greater world.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The great French mathematician Poincaré's (1854–1912) rigorous research and quest for understanding influenced fields as diverse as algebra, geometry, astronomy, and physics. Drawing on Poincaré's voluminous notebooks, essays, and other writings, Gray, a math historian at Britain's Open University, chronicles Poincaré's remarkable achievements in language that is by turns sparkling and dense. The biography of a mind, Gray's narrative doesn't linger over the details of Poincaré's life but concentrates on mathematician's wide-ranging and penetrating insights into celestial mechanics, topology, number theory, and algebraic geometry. Gray reveals Poincaré's work pattern: when reflecting on a topic, he liked to walk about; he took few notes when preparing to work and often approached a problem without any idea of a solution. One of his most celebrated achievements was cracking the three-body problem, which asserted the impossibility of predicting the relationships among three bodies moving under mutual gravitational attraction. Chock full of the equations and formulas that Poincaré developed to support and prove his groundbreaking work, Gray's intellectual biography deftly illuminates the workings of a fertile mind but the volume will be most appreciated by the devoted math and science reader. 13 b&w photos. (Dec.)
Nature - George Szpiro
[M]asterly . . . Gray encapsulates Poincaré's multiple dimensions; his intellectual biography is both a tour de force and a triumph of readability.
Times Higher Education - Madeline Muntersbjorn
[A] comprehensive but uncluttered guide to Poincaré's extensive oeuvres.
Standpoint Magazine - Mark Ronan
Full of the mathematical, physical and metaphysical ideas of a man who was not only a dispassionate observer of the world around us, but of our way of understanding it.
Science - Peter Pesic
Gray shows us the full dazzling sweep of what Poincaré accomplished, including the work on dynamical systems and chaos that only came into its own in recent years. A tour de force, Gray's masterful treatment will long remain an invaluable resource for all who want to understand Poincaré, so embedded within his times and yet so far ahead of them.
Sacramento Book Review - Laura Tarwater Scharp
[A] comprehensive assessment of Poincare's work and its importance, essential for anyone interested in Poincare's scholarship or the history of mathematics.
Science News
Comprehensive . . .
CTK Insights - Alexander Bogomolny
A fundamental study of the scientific work of one of the greatest mathematicians and mathematical physicists of the three decades straddling the 19th and 20th centuries. . . . Chapters are organized topically, not chronologically. Each illuminates in depth one or other of Poincaré's works but all are set in context both historical and temathic such that each can serve as an introduction into the many subjects to which Poincaré made a contribution.
From the Publisher
One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2013

"[M]asterly . . . Gray encapsulates Poincaré's multiple dimensions; his intellectual biography is both a tour de force and a triumph of readability."—George Szpiro,Nature

"Gray shows us the full dazzling sweep of what Poincaré accomplished, including the work on dynamical systems and chaos that only came into its own in recent years. A tour de force, Gray's masterful treatment will long remain an invaluable resource for all who want to understand Poincaré, so embedded within his times and yet so far ahead of them."—Peter Pesic, Science

"[A] comprehensive but uncluttered guide to Poincaré's extensive oeuvres."—Madeline Muntersbjorn, Times Higher Education

"Full of the mathematical, physical and metaphysical ideas of a man who was not only a dispassionate observer of the world around us, but of our way of understanding it."—Mark Ronan, Standpoint Magazine (U.K.)

"[A] comprehensive assessment of Poincare's work and its importance, essential for anyone interested in Poincare's scholarship or the history of mathematics."—Laura Tarwater Scharp, Sacramento Book Review

"Comprehensive."Science News

"A fundamental study of the scientific work of one of the greatest mathematicians and mathematical physicists of the three decades straddling the 19th and 20th centuries. . . . Chapters are organized topically, not chronologically. Each illuminates in depth one or other of Poincaré's works but all are set in context both historical and temathic such that each can serve as an introduction into the many subjects to which Poincaré made a contribution."—Alexander Bogomolny, CTK Insights

"Poincare's work is fully alive in science today. This biography is one of the first thorough introductions to his work, it should get the attention of mathematicians, natural scientists and philosophers."—Ferdinand Verhulst, European Legacy

"Gray, a mathematics historian and scholar on the life and work of Henry Poincaré, has, with the support of a Leverhulme Research Fellowship, produced this comprehensive and definitive 'scientific biography.' Gray offers abundant rich information on Poincaré's ideas and scientific process, the evolution and maturity of his mathematics including missteps, the dexterity of his reasoning, and the influences that shaped his thought."Choice

"I recommend [this] book highly."—Robert E. O'Malley, Jr., SIAM Review

"Jeremy Gray's book on Poincaré's mathematics, physics, and philosophy is an important contribution to the literature and a huge step towards a full biography of this pioneer of modern science."—Reinhard Siegmund-Schultze, Zentralblatt MATH

"Gray's book is a comprehensive scientific biography of Poincare. It embraces the broad scope of Poincare's work, from his philosophical speculations to his popular writing, and gives a thorough overview of his extensive mathematical researches."—Peter Lynch, Irish Mathematical Society Bulletin

"[T]he author does not simply give platitudes when writing about Poincare's ideas: mathematicians will enjoy reading about his discoveries concerning the three-body problem, the theory of functions, topology, number theory, Lie theory, algebraic geometry, and probability. This scientific biography is the first to comprehensively cover all of Poincare's main contributions to mathematics, philosophy, and physics."—Alan S. McRae, Mathemematical Reviews Clippings

"Jeremy Gray has done a marvelous job of exposition and of binding together the many different cognitive, social and biographical strands into the coherent whole of a challenging, but highly rewarding, 'scientific biography'."—Klaus Hentschel, British Journal for the History of Science

"A good intellectual biography of an artist should help the reader see how a particular worldview shapes the pursuit of art. Gray's book does that most admirably."—Daniel S. Alexander, H-France Review

"Henry Poincaré is likely to remain the standard by which scientific biographies, at least those that concern physicists and mathematicians, are judged for some time."—Christopher Cumo, Canadian Journal of History

"I warmly recommend the book to anyone with an interest in the development of modern mathematics. It will surely be the definitive scientific biography of Poincare for the foreseeable future."—John Stillwell, Notices of the AMS

"Gray describes Poincaré's scientific epoch in a beautiful way. Due attention is paid to the mathematical and further scientific aspects of his life, and the intellectual complexity of his achievements, both in their range and their depth, are amply discussed. Gray displays a mastery of his material that is rare even among historians of mathematics and science, and his biography is richly rewarding, engrossing, and informative. He deserves our congratulations."—H. W. Broer, Journal of the British Society for the History of Mathematics

"Gray succeeds admirably in presenting both the conceptual and the historical context necessary to appreciate Poincaré's contributions. Gray's masterful biography may well serve as a standard example for future endeavors of this kind."—Tilman Sauer, Isis

"The obvious virtue of this book is its comprehensiveness. The deeper virtue is to connect Poincaré's views of all the parts of his work and to encourage more of that. Gray gives us Poincaré's view of Science as a whole."—Colin McLarty, Mathematical Intelligencer

"The book is an endless source of interesting insights by Poincaré. . . . I would recommend the book for mathematicians, mathematics educators, and philosophers in higher education who want a rich understanding of Poincaré, his work, and his times."—Mary L. Garner, Mathematics Teacher

Library Journal
In the first full-length English-language book to cover Henri Poincaré's (1854-1912) contributions to mathematics, physics, and philosophy, Gray (history of mathematics, Open Univ.; Plato's Ghost: The Modernist Transformation of Mathematics) illuminates how the French polymath tackled so many different problems with such success. Poincaré is best known for his work in mathematics, including Newton's n-body problem on the movement of celestial objects; his famous Millennium Prize-problem conjecture, which dealt with algebraic topology; and his general influence in that field. Gray uses Poincaré's manuscripts and supplementary archival sources to document his influence in divergent fields of interest, including celestial mechanics, Lorentz's transformations, and the philosophy of mathematics and science. Although he includes traditional biographical elements, Gray spends considerable time describing Poincaré's ways of thinking during a transitional period of French and scientific history. VERDICT This book is lengthy, written for a general audience, and devoid of mathematical proofs, though it also includes pictures, figures, and references. An interesting history that will be of special interest to students and scholars.—Ian D. Gordon, Brock Univ. Lib., St. Catharines, Ont.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780691152714
Publisher:
Princeton University Press
Publication date:
11/25/2012
Pages:
616
Sales rank:
735,975
Product dimensions:
6.50(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.90(d)

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Meet the Author

Jeremy Gray is professor of the history of mathematics at the Open University, and an honorary professor at the University of Warwick. His most recent book is Plato's Ghost: The Modernist Transformation of Mathematics (Princeton).

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