Henri Poincaré: A Scientific Biography

The first clue that Henri Poincaré: A Scientific Biography (ISBN 0691152713) is not going to be a typical biography is in the table of contents. It lists one appendix on elliptic and Abelian functions and another on Maxwell’s equations. This is a biography of a mathematician that doesn’t shy away from math.

The subtitle is “a scientific biography” because the book is primarily about the work of Poincaré  rather than his personal life. It has more to say about the three-body problem and algebraic topology, for example, than about Poincaré’s parents.

I haven’t seen a book like this before. I’ve seen books that are essentially collections of scholarly papers with biographical footnotes. And at the other extreme I’ve seen biographies practically devoid of scientific details. But I don’t remember seeing a biography that unapologetically includes substantial scientific content in the course of telling the story of a scientist’s life.

8 thoughts on “Henri Poincaré: A Scientific Biography

  1. While not overly technical, although it contains a fair number of mathematical asides, the biography of R. A. Fisher by his daughter does a very nice job of putting his work into context. Aforementioned daughter was married to George Box who probably had more than a bit of influence in the technical sections. Reading it with a stack of his papers at hand is quite enjoyable. You can consider the Complete Works of Fisher as an appendix.

  2. I look forward to reading Jeremy Gray’s biography of Poincare.
    I have posted on my website the following Poincare-related items:
    1. John Stillwell’s English translation of Poincare’s papers on topology
    (which was published by the AMS and the LMS http://www.ams.org/bookstore-getitem/item=HMATH-37 ). Incidentally, videos of John Stillwell’s 2 lectures in Edinburgh in May 2012 on Poincare, Whittaker and Ford are available from
    http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xrigcj_whittaker-colloquium-john-stillwell-lecture1_tech and http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xrjtnh_whittaker-colloquium-lecture-2_tech

    2. Poincare’s involvement in the Dreyfus case is documented in http://www.maths.ed.ac.uk/~aar/dreyfus.htm

  3. “I want to be a mathematician”, P R Halmos’s “automathography”, has a non-negligible amount of mathematical content (though not much that’s very technical) and the rest is focused on his mathematical life — with, deliberately, very little about his childhood, marriages, etc. It’s also well written and interesting.

  4. There’s also Carlo Cercignani’s biography of Boltzmann, “Ludwig Boltzmann: The Man Who Trusted Atoms”. It’s pretty technical in places, but all in the service of providing real context for Boltzmann’s ideas. It’s good.

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