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Poincare's Silence and Einstein's Relativity: The Role of Theory and Experiment in Poincaré's Physics


It is a matter of record that Henri Poincaré never responded publicly to Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity (RT). Since almost no private papers of Poincaré are available, his attitude toward Einstein's work and his silence on that score become somewhat of a mystery. It is almost certain that Poincaré knew of Einstein's work in RT. First, he was fluent in German, having learned it as a young man when the Germans occupied his home town of Nancy in 1870. Second, he often reported to the members of the Académie des Sciences on current work in electrodynamics in Germany. It is highly improbable that he would have missed the abstract of Einstein's first paper on RT or the subsequent articles by Einstein on the subject, especially those which were translated into French, since they were in areas directly related to his own interests in theoretical physics.

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1 Holton G., “On the Thematic Analysis of Science: The Case of Poincaré and Relativity”, in Mélanges Alexandre Koyré (Paris: Hermann, 1964), 267.

2 Darboux G., “Éloge historique d'Henri Poincaré”, Oeuvres d'Henri Poincaré (11 vols., Paris: Gauthier-Villars, 19341954), vol ii, pp. viilxx, xv.

3 Ibid., xlii.

4 Journal de physique, v (1906), 493.

5 Einstein A., “Sur la théorie des quantités lumineuses et la question de la localisation de l'énergie électromagnétique”, Arch. des sci. phys. et nat., xxix (1910), 525528.

A. Einstein, “Le principe de la relativité et ses conséquences dans la physique moderne”, ibid., 5–28, 125–144.

6 Goldberg S., “Henri Poincaré and Einstein's Theory of Relativity”, Amer. J. Phys., xxxv (1967), 934944.

7 Cf. Frank P., Philosophy of Science (Englewood-Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1957), 350 ff. (Frank presents an excellent discussion of the vagaries which beset users of the concept of simplicity in talking about science); Cohen M. R., Reason and Nature (2nd edn., New York: Harcourt Brace, 1931), 177 ff.; Bunge M., The Myth of Simplicity (Englewood-Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1963), chaps., vivii.

8 Poincaré H., Électricité et Optique (Paris, 1901), v–ix.

9 Poincaré, quoted in Dantzig T., Henri Poincaré: Critic of Crisis (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1954), 10.

10 Poincaré H., Science and Hypothesis (New York: Dover Publications, 1952), 145.

11 Ibid. Cf. Eisele-Halpern Carolyn, “Poincaré's Positivism in the Light of C. S. Pierce's Realism”, Actes du IX congrès international d'histoire des science (Paris: Hermann, 1960), vol. i, 461465.

12 Poincaré, Science and Hypothesis, 146.

13 Ibid., chaps. 4, 5. Cf. Cohen, loc. cit.

14 Poincaré H., Science and Method (New York: Dover Publications, n.d.), 1719.

15 Ibid., 16–20.

16 Goldberg, loc. cit.

17 Poincaré, Science and Hypothesis, xxii–xxiii.

18 Ibid., xxiii–xxvi.

19 Ibid., xxvi. It should be pointed out that at this time, mechanics, mécanique rationelle as the French called it, was taught exclusively in the department of mathematics. Cf. Rapports (University of Paris, 19051906), 155165.

20 Poincaré, Science and Hypothesis, 140, 150.

21 Holton, loc. cit. (1). Cf. Goldberg, loc. cit. (6).

22 Poincaré, Science and Method, 286.

23 Poincaré, Science and Hypothesis, 143.

24 Holton, loc. cit., 262. Cf. McCormmach R., “Henri Poincaré and the Quantum Theory”, Isis, lviii (1967), 3755. The work of McCormmach suggests that perhaps Poincaré was not quite as cautious in his approach to quantum phenomena.

25 Holton, loc. cit. (1), 262.

26 Poincaré, quoted in Holton, loc. cit. (1).

27 Poincaré H., “La théorie de Lorentz et la principe de réaction”, Arch. Néerl., v (1900), 252278.

28 Holton, loc. cit. (1), 262263.

29 Ibid., fn. 9, 263.

30 Poincaré, Science and Method, 199.

31 Poincaré, “La mécanique nouvelle [an address delivered at the French Association for the Advancement of Science, 1909]” (Paris: Gauthier-Villars, 1924), 1617.

32 Lémeray E. M., L'éther actuel (Paris, 1924), 124127.

33 Arzelies H., La cinématique relativiste (Paris: Gauthier-Villars, 1955), vii.

34 Holton has pointed out that Poincaré made similar statements in the last year of his life, 1912. Holton, loc. cit. (1), 262263.

35 See page 84 below.

36 Cf. Scribner C. Jr., “Henri Poincaré and the Principle of Relativity”, Amer. J. Phys., xxxii (1964), 672678, 677.Keswani G. H., “Origin and Concept of Relativity”, Brit. J. Phil. Sci., xv (1965), 286306.Keswani G. H., “Origin and Concept of Relativity II”, Brit.J. Phil. Sci., xvi (1965), 1932.Holton, loc. cit. (1), 262.

37 Poincaré H., “La théorie de Lorentz et le phénomène de Zeeman”, L'éclairage électrique, xix (1899), 515. Reprinted in Oeuvres d'Henri Poincaré, ix, 454460, 460.

38 Poincaré, Électricité et Optique, 536.

39 Lorentz H., “Electrical Phenomena in a System Moving with any Velocity less than that of Light”, Proc. Acad. Sci. Amst., vi (1904). Reprinted in Lorentz et al., The Principle of Relativity (New York: Dover Publications, n.d.), 11–34. All citations will be to the Dover Publication.

40 Ibid., 13.

41 Holton G., “On the Origins of the Special Theory of Relativity”, Amer. J. Phys., xxviii (1960), 627636.

42 Poincaré H., “Sur la dynamique de l'électron”, Rend. d. Circolo Mat. di Palermo, xxi (1906), 129179. Reprinted in Oeuvres, ix, 494550, 495.

43 Ibid., 496.

44 Poincaré H., “Les rapports de la matiere et de l'éther”, Journal de phys. thé. et app., ii, 347360 (1912). Reprinted in Oeuvres, ix, 669682, 680.

45 Keswani, loc. cit. (36, II).

46 Ibid., 27.

47 Einstein, quoted in ibid., 25.

48 Goldberg, loc. cit. (6).

49 Holton G., “Influences on Einstein's Early Work in Relativity Theory”, The American Scholar, xxxvii (19671968), 5979 (6869).

50 Cf. Darboux, loc. cit., passim.

51 Cf. P. Langevin, “The Scientific Work”, Volterra et al. , Henri Poincaré (Paris, 1914), passim.

52 Cf. Dantzig, loc. cit. (9), chap. i.

53 Keswani, loc. cit. (36) passim; loc. cit. (36, II), 23.

54 Ibid., 28.

55 Ibid., 30–31.

56 Goldberg, loc. cit. (6).

58 Cf. Poincaré H., La dynamique de l'électron (Paris, 1913), passim. In fact, had Poincaré lived, there is evidence that he might have attempted to include recent quantum phenomena within the Lorentz theory. Cf. H. Poincaré, “Sur la théorie des quanta”, Comptes Rendus, cliii (1911), 1103–08. H. Poincaré, “Sur la théorie des quanta”, Journal de phys. thé. et app., ii (1912), 5–34. “In one of his critical essays on the logic and methodology of science, Poincaré wrote that the goal of science was not mechanism but unity. Quanta were ‘fascinating’ to him in this unifying sense; they conformed to the trend of reducing all phenomena to an atomistic interpretation” (McCormmach, loc. cit. (24), 39).

59 Keswani asks if perhaps Einstein's work had not seemed trivial to Poincaré, but refuses to speculate on it. Keswani, loc. cit. (36, II), 31.

60 Goldberg, loc. cit. (6), 940.

61 Einstein A., “Über Relativitätsprinzip und die aus demselben gezogene Folgerungen”, Jahrb. Rad. u. Elek., iv (1907), 411462 (436439). Cf. Holton G., “Mach, Einstein, and the Search for Reality”, Daedalus, lxxxxvii (1968), 636673 (651652).

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