Henri Poincare: A Scientific Biography

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"Poincaré was much more than a mathematician: he was a public intellectual, and a rare scientist who enthusiastically rose to the challenge of explaining and interpreting science for the public. With amazingly lucid explanations of Poincaré's ideas, this book is one that any reader who wants to understand the context and content of Poincaré's work will want to have on hand."—Dana Mackenzie, author of The Universe in Zero Words

"This engaging book recounts the achievements of Henri Poincaré, covering his ...

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"Poincaré was much more than a mathematician: he was a public intellectual, and a rare scientist who enthusiastically rose to the challenge of explaining and interpreting science for the public. With amazingly lucid explanations of Poincaré's ideas, this book is one that any reader who wants to understand the context and content of Poincaré's work will want to have on hand."—Dana Mackenzie, author of The Universe in Zero Words

"This engaging book recounts the achievements of Henri Poincaré, covering his mathematics, physics, and philosophy, and his activities as a public intellectual. He is an eminently worthy subject for an intellectual biography of this kind."—Benjamin Wardhaugh, University of Oxford

"This comprehensive scientific biography of Poincaré situates the scientist's life and work in the sociopolitical context of his era. Covering his varied and wide-spanning work—from the most philosophical to the most technical—this book gives the general reader a clear historical sense of the man's voluminous accomplishments."—Jimena Canales, Harvard University

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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
"[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: 617,246
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.90 (d)

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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Table of Contents

List of Figures ix

Preface xi

Introduction 1

  • Views of Poincaré 3
  • Poincaré's Way of Thinking 6

1 The Essayist 27

  • Poincaré and the Three Body Problem 27
  • Poincaré's Popular Essays 34
  • Paris Celebrates the New Century 59
  • Science, Hypothesis, Value 67
  • Poincaré and Projective Geometry 76
  • Poincaré's Popular Writings on Physics 100
  • The Future of Mathematics 112
  • Poincaré among the Logicians 123
  • Poincaré's Defenses of Science 144

2 Poincaré's Career 153

  • Childhood, Schooling 153
  • The École Polytechnique 157
  • The École des Mines 158
  • Academic Life 160
  • The Dreyfus Affair 165
  • National Spokesman 169
  • Contemporary Technology 177
  • International Representative 187
  • The Nobel Prize 192
  • "1911", "1912" 200
  • Remembering Poincaré 202

3 The Prize Competition of 1880 207

  • The Competition 207
  • Fuchs, Schwarz, Klein, and Automorphic Functions 224
  • Uniformization, 1882 to 1907 247

4 The Three Body Problem 253

  • Flows on Surfaces 253
  • Stability Questions 265
  • Poincaré's Essay and Its Supplements 266
  • Les Méthodes Nouvelles de la Mécanique Céleste 281
  • Poincaré Returns 291

5 Cosmogony 300

  • Rotating Fluid Masses 300

6 Physics 318

  • Theories of Electricity before Poincaré: Maxwell 318
  • Poincaré's Électricité et Optique, 1890 329
  • Larmor and Lorentz: The Electron and the Ether 338
  • Poincaré on Hertz and Lorentz 346
  • St. Louis, 1904 356
  • The Dynamics of the Electron 361
  • Poincaré and Einstein 367
  • Early Quantum Theory 378

7 Theory of Functions and Mathematical Physics 382

  • Function Theory of a Single Variable 382
  • Function Theory of Several Variables 391
  • Poincaré's Approach to Potential Theory 402
  • The Six Lectures in Göttingen, 1909 416

8 Topology 427

  • Topology before Poincaré 427
  • Poincare's Work, 1895 to 1905 432

9 Interventions in Pure Mathematics 467

  • Number Theory 467
  • Lie Theory 489
  • Algebraic Geometry 498

10 Poincaré as a Professional Physicist 509

  • Thermodynamics 513
  • Probability 518

11 Poincaré and the Philosophy of Science 525

  • Poincaré: Idealist, Skeptic, or Structural Realist? 525

12 Appendixes 543

  • Elliptic and Abelian Functions 543
  • Maxwell's Equations 545
  • Glossary 548

References 553

  • Articles and Books by Poincaré 554
  • Other Authors 564

Name Index 585

Subject Index 589

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