Why care about this 19th century French mathematician? Like it or not, he shaped your world view. Plus, he’s generated some really weird YouTube videos.
Henri Poincaré is often described as the last of the “universalist” mathematicians. Meaning, he wasn’t a specialist in any one field — as we think of things these days. Instead, his interests were broad-ranging, and he came up with so many ideas even he couldn’t keep up with the flow.
Now they give him credit for advancing topology, number theory, chaos theory and all kinds of things, a hundred years after his death. It was only recently that one of his problems, called the Poincaré Conjecture, was solved.
Poincaré had been no prodigy. Biographical accounts credit him with a dandy imagination at home (he was privately tutored), but they also make it a point to say that Poincaré had terrible eyesight and was just plain clumsy (he was also ambidextrous, which, in those days, went along with being considered clumsy — go figure).
Yet, by the time he was a teenager, Poincaré was a top student and a “mathematical monster,” as famously described by one instructor. He also had a remarkable memory, not simply “photographic,” but one that also allowed him — because of his bad eyesight? — to visualize math problems as he heard them described in lecture halls.
Poincaré had an interest in crystals as well as differential equations and such, so while he was earning a doctorate in mathematics, he was also going for an advanced degree in mining engineering. Even though he spent his professional career as a university instructor, Poincaré had a life-long association with the Department of Mines.
He was able to write about science in an engaging way, that was part of his fame. And he wrote a lot, about a lot of different things. Although he was famous as a lecturer, and earned his pay that way at the university, most accounts have it that Poincaré was not so great as a presenter, either because of shyness or dullness. Yet, his lectures covered a lot of ground — optics, astronomy, fluid dynamics, celestial mechanics, probability…. He skipped around so much, one of his contemporaries described Poincaré as “a conqueror, not a colonist.”
Descriptions of Poincaré also agree that he was one of those guys who seemed to have his head in the clouds most of the time. He was an influence and early advocate of Albert Einstein — and don’t we love that image of a brotherhood of brilliant but absent-minded geniuses?
Poincaré died young, sort of — he was 58 when he keeled over from an embolism after some surgery, in 1912. Earlier in his life he’d gone through the Franco-Prussian wars of the 1870s, so maybe it wasn’t so bad he was spared the horrors of World War I. Henri’s first cousin, Raymond Poincaré, was the president of France during the first World War. That must have been a drag.
To sum up, Henri Poincaré was one of the last of the 19th century scholars to be able to present an all-encompassing view of scientific knowledge, and to somehow carry it off on the power of sheer intellectual brilliance.
So what about the weird videos? Well, here they are. They are *mostly* right on historical details, and they *mostly* feel like you’re in a David Lynch movie.