Skip to main content

Henri Poincaré – Jeremy Gray ***

My first sight of this book filled me with a certain unease. It would be polite to call it chunky – in truth, at 542 pages plus appendices, it is obese. This initial feeling was not helped by a bizarre statement the author makes in the introduction. ‘This is a scientific biography of Henri Poincaré,’ he says. ‘It is confined entirely to his public life: his contributions to mathematics, to many branches of physics, technology, to philosophy and to public life. It presents him as a public figure in his intellectual and social world; it leaves the private man alone apart from a deliberately brief account of his childhood and education.’
No, no, no! This is a bizarre distortion of what a scientific biography should be. I am comfortable with keeping coverage of his childhood and education brief, as they are usually dull and not particularly illuminating. There are clear counter-examples, for example, with Newton’s formative years, which are absolutely crucial in understanding the scientist, but for many, these aspects are fairly irrelevant. But the point of a scientificbiography, as opposed to a book about a person’s science pure and simple is that it puts the science into context – and that context must include the private life. Can you imagine a biography of Richard Feynman without his private life coming into it? This is a crazy viewpoint.
Even so I persevered, as I have always had Poincaré in my mind as one of those mathematicians beloved by other mathematicians but of little interest to the real world, so I wanted to find out more about the man (as much as Jeremy Gray would allow me) and his impact on science and technology. It was hard work. There’s an awful lot (some of it truly awful) about the subtleties of philosophy that gets in the way of much of the more interesting content. This is supposed to be a scientific biography, remember, not a philosophical one.
When there is a section that is more of interest (and the way the book is organized does not make it easy to find your way around), frankly it can verge on the unreadable. This is the worst kind of dry academic writing, combined with an approach to the science that is strongly mathematical in flavour and the author lacks any skill in actually explaining the science for anyone who doesn’t know the maths already.
There is always a danger in reading an academic tone and complaining that it’s not popular science because it was never intended to be. And this book is published by Princeton University Press. But I was told it was suitable for a general readership, and this is usually the case with scientific biographies. But I am afraid this is really only suitable for a very narrow audience with a purely academic interest in pure and applied mathematics and the philosophy behind it. Disappointing.
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

Everything You Know About Space Is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

What we have here is a feast of assertions some people make about space that are satisfyingly incorrect, with pithy, entertaining explanations of what the true picture is. Matt Brown admits in his introduction that a lot of these incorrect facts are nitpicking - more on that in a moment - but it doesn't stop them being delightful. I particularly enjoyed the ones about animals in space and about the Moon.

Along the way, we take in space exploration, the Earth's place in space, the Moon, the solar system, the universe and a collection of random oddities, such as the fact that Mozart didn't write Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Sometimes the wrongness comes from a frequent misunderstanding. So, for example, Brown corrects the idea that Copernicus was the first to say that the Earth moves around the Sun. Sometimes there's some very careful wording. This is used when Brown challenges the idea that the Russian dog Laika was the first animal in space. What we discover is that, i…

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs - Lisa Randall ****

I did my PhD in galactic dynamics - which is an awkward subject when people want to know what its relevance to the 'real world' is. So I was excited when Clube and Napier's book The Cosmic Serpent came out, around the same time, because it provided me with a ready-made answer. It argued that the comets which occasionally crash into Earth with disastrous results - such as the extinction of the dinosaurs - are perturbed from their normal orbits by interactions with the large-scale structure of the galaxy.

I was reminded of this idea a few years ago when there was a flurry of media interest in Lisa Randall's "dark matter and the dinosaurs" conjecture. I was sufficiently enthusiastic about it to write an article on the subject for Fortean Times - though my enthusiasm didn't quite extend to purchasing her hardback book at the time. However, now that it's out in paperback I've remedied the situation - and I'm glad I did.

Dark matter is believed to exi…