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Topic: Re: [HM] poincare and his "inspired" followers
Replies: 11   Last Post: Oct 28, 2005 7:16 PM

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Re: [HM] poincare and his "inspired" followers
Posted: Sep 28, 2005 9:58 AM
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Dear all.

On Sat, 17 Sep 2005, Udai Venedem wrote:
> as it is all well known, Einstein largely plagiarised Poincare's "Sur
> la dynamique de l’électron" (C. R., 5 juin 1905, p. 1504-1508). It
> is less known if the same Poincare's "Sur la generalisation d'un
> theoreme Elmentaire de Geometrie" (C. R., 16 janvier 1905, p. 113-117)
> was of "inspiration" for Minkowski's construction of the 4-dimensions
> space-time structure. Any idea or comment?

This is indeed a "hoary old chestnut"! The relation between Poincare
and Einstein re the special theory of relativity has been discussed
to and fro at least since Whittaker wrote about "The relativity theory
of Poincare and Lorentz" in 1960, but for me it is the first time that
I have seen the word "plagiarize" used in the context.

In his reply David Derbes makes much of the fact that Poincare was a
mathematician and that Einstein had a pronounced dislike of
But of course Poincare was also very active in practically all aspects
of physics and did discuss the principle of relativity from the late
1890:s onwards. I also have a recollection that Einstein and his
friends in the "Olympia Academy" did study Poincare's "Science and
Hypotheses" which deals with these matters in a popular fashion. In
fact Maurice Solovine who was a member of this group recalled this:
he also said: "Einstein qui maniait l'instrument mathematique avec
une incomparable dexterite s'est souvent prononce contre l'emploi
abusif des mathematiques en physique." This of course was a (very)
"early" Einstein. I don't think Einstein actively disliked mathematics,
it was more a matter of not finding the more advanced branches of
any use (at this stage).

It might be of interest to note that there is a similar debate as to
Poincare's influence on Minkowski and his seminal lecture/paper on
space and time in 1908/09 (a debate referred to in a paper by Scott
Walter in the volume "The Expanding worlds of General Relativity"
(ed. H.Goenner et al.).

Finally a few words on the different ways in which Einstein and
Poincare presented their thoughts. Starting with a mainly heuristic
argument on the lack of symmetry in classical electromagnetism,
Einstein gave his two axioms (relativity principle and constancy of
the velocity of light) followed by a discussion of simultaneity. He
thus gave a pure space-time theory before dealing with physics
proper. Poincare certainly introduced a relativity principle right
from the start but his considerations were more tied to the structure
of matter (ie. the electron) and unlike Einstein (who magnificently
stated: "The introduction of a "luminiferous ether" will prove to
be superfluous") Poincare retained this evanescent object. There is
a striking parallell here in that Einstein was involved in another
debate on priority with a mathematician, namely Hilbert, concerning
the gravitational field equations. Here also Einstein was working
in a "space-time-gravitation" framework but Hilbert also tried to
include a theory of matter (originating with Gustav Mie) which made
his formalism far less transparent. It seems to me that in both cases
Einstein's treatment had a kind of mathematical clarity about it which
is missing in the writings of the two mathematicians.

From a beautifully autumnal Uppsala.

Gunnar Berg

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