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Henri Poincare
Biography,  Science

Henri Poincaré: A great scientific thinker ever witnessed

Have you heard about Henri Poincaré before?

Chances are high that you have not.

I am sure after reading this article, you would probably say ‘How could I never heard about this man.

What if tell you that Einstien’s theory of relativity or Picassos’ great paintings would have been incomplete without Henri Poincaré.

You are probably puzzled now.

What is the connection between Einstein and Picasso?

One is a scientist and the other is an artist.

If Henri Poincaré is so influential then why there is not enough written about him?

It’s a winner takes it all phenomenon.

Albert Einstein took all the limelight with his theory and relativity and other discoveries.

But people who contributed perhaps equally (at the same time) or people who inspired/helped Einstein to discover remain out of the limelight.

Henri Poincaré was a French Mathematician, Physicist, engineer, and philosopher of science.

In a nutshell, he was a true polymath.

In fact, he is also known as the last universalist since he excelled in all the disciplines it existed during his lifetime (reminds me of Leonardo Da Vinci).

If you go through his life, you will find fascinating things. He had a unique and remarkable style of looking at work, science, logic, intuition, productivity, etc that we could learn from this great man.

Early life and education

Jules-Henri Poincaré was born on April 29, 1854, in the city of Nancy, France. Henri’s mother was Eugénie Launois, a notably intelligent woman from a wealthy family. Henri’s father was Léon Poincaré, a physician and professor of medicine at the University of Nancy who lectured in anatomy and physiology.

Although Henri Poincaré’s family was Roman Catholic, by the age of 18, he described himself as a free thinker and not religious.

At age eight, Henri began his schooling. His high school was the Lycée Nancy, now renamed the Lycée Henri Poincaré.

Henri Poincaré had a stellar academic career. In fact. when he was 13 years old, a teacher told his mother ‘Henri will become a mathematician … I would say a great mathematician‘.

Later in 1879, Henri received his doctorate in Mathematics (on partial differential equations) from the University of Paris.

Subsequently, he was then put in charge of the course on differential and integral calculus at the University of Caen.

Henri Poincaré was elected to the French Academy of Sciences at the young age of 32 and became its president in 1906.

Contributions of Henri Poincaré

Poincaré conjecture

It is being said that Henri Poincaré set the tone for creativity in art and science of the 20th century.

He contributed significantly to the field of topology. Poincaré became increasingly interested in what topological properties characterized a sphere. He faced the challenge of describing the shape of our 3-dimensional universe, he came up with the famous Poincaré conjecture.

The conjecture looks at a space that, locally, looks like ordinary 3-dimensional space but is connected, finite in size, and lacks any boundary (technically known as a closed 3-manifold or 3-sphere).

In 1900, he claimed that homology was sufficient to tell if a 3-manifold was a 3-sphere and four years later, he described a counterexample to this claim, a space now called the Poincaré homology sphere. The Poincaré sphere was the first example of a homology sphere.

The problem of describing a three-dimensional body in two dimensions remained unsolved until 2002 when an extremely complex solution was provided by the eccentric and reclusive Russian mathematician Grigori Perelman, involving the ways in which 3-dimensional shapes can be “wrapped up” in higher dimensions.

Ultimately the theory (Poincaré conjecture) provided by Poincaré was proved to be true.

Three-body problem

The other notable contribution of Poincaré is his work on the three-body problem.

Newton had long ago proved that the paths of two planets orbiting around each other would remain stable.

However, just the addition of one more orbiting body to this two-planet system would result in the involvement of additional 18 different variables (such as position, velocity in each direction, etc.), making it mathematically too complex to predict or disprove a stable orbit (three-body problem).

Henri Poincaré tried to solve this problem by using a series of approximations of the orbits, although admittedly only a partial solution.

He soon realized that his simplification did not indicate a stable solar system at all.

In fact, he found that even a very small change in the conditions would lead to vastly different results (in this case orbits).

This discovery, born from a mistake ultimately became the foundation for chaos theory (also known as the butterfly effect).

Henri Poincaré received the King Oscar II Prize for research into the stability of the solar system (three-body problem).

The Three-Body Problem has been a recurrent theme of Poincaré’s thought. He developed the necessary fundamental tools: analysis, of course, but also topology, geometry, probability, etc. for solving the three-body problems. Even today, mathematicians working on the Three-Body Problem still draw inspiration from his works.

Physics

Poincaré’s work in theoretical physics was also of extreme significance, and his symmetrical presentation of the Lorentz transformations in 1905 was a significant and necessary step in the formulation of Einstein’s theory of special relativity (some even believe that Poincaré and Lorentz were the true discoverers of relativity).

Besides this, he also contributed immensely to a whole range of other areas of Physics including fluid mechanics, optics, electricity, telegraphy, capillarity, elasticity, thermodynamics, potential theory, quantum theory, and cosmology.

Work style and his views on intuition

Henri Poincaré had his unique way to work. He used to work only four hours a day. Two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening.

This might sound surprising to you how a scientist could achieve so much by working only four hours a day.

In his own words-


“Every day I spent an hour or two at my desk, trying a lot of combinations without result. One evening, I could not get to sleep because, unusually, I had drunk black coffee. Ideas flooded into my head; I could feel them colliding with one another until two of them bonded to make a stable combination.”

Most people in today’s work culture would have a hard time believing that four hours of work in a day could result in anything substantial.

John Cook, biographer of Henri Poincaré wrote in his book that


“Poincaré … worked regularly from 10 to 12 in the morning and from 5 till 7 in the late afternoon. He found that working longer seldom achieved anything …”

We have to realize that work in this context means being super-focused and ultra-concentration (no distraction).

Four hours of deep work is way better than 10 hours of shallow work. Poincaré realized the value of deep work. Especially, when one requires creativity and imagination in work, deep work is a must-have so that the mind can wander the rest of the time to come up with a solution.

Modern society has become the slave of the rational or logical brain. We rely too much upon our logic to find a solution.

But if you look at the lives of scientists like Henri Poincaré or Albert Einstein (and many more), you will find that more than logic, intuition played a crucial part in their lives.

The best we could do to become more creative is to work intensely when we work and then take enough rest and involve in leisure activities to provide our subconscious mind the opportunity to light up with creative thoughts.

Henri Poincaré said it best-

“It is through science that we prove, but through intuition that we discover.”

His books Science and Hypothesis, Science and Method, The Value of Science, etc. still remains a source of inspiration for true thinkers around the world.

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Sources/Further Reading:

  1. Work or Rest by John Cook
  2. FamousScientists.org
  3. The Guardian
  4. Story of Mathematics
  5. Henri Poincaré.: A Life in the Service of Science

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