Quotations by Henri Poincaré


Mathematicians are born, not made.

I entered an omnibus to go to some place or other. At that moment when I put my foot on the step the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it, that the transformations I had used to define the Fuchsian functions were identical with non-Euclidean geometry.

In the old days when people invented a new function they had something useful in mind. Now, they invent them deliberately just to invalidate our ancestors' reasoning, and that is all they are ever going to get out of them.

How is an error possible in mathematics? A sane mind should not be guilty of a logical fallacy, yet there are very fine minds incapable of following mathematical demonstrations. Need we add that mathematicians themselves are not infallible?

Point set topology is a disease from which the human race will soon recover.
Quoted in D MacHale, Comic Sections (Dublin 1993)

Later generations will regard Mengenlehre (set theory) as a disease from which one has recovered.
[Whether or not he actually said this is a matter of debate amongst historians of mathematics.]
The Mathematical Intelligencer 13 (1991).

Mathematics is the art of giving the same name to different things.
[As opposed to the quotation: Poetry is the art of giving different names to the same thing].

What is it indeed that gives us the feeling of elegance in a solution, in a demonstration? It is the harmony of the diverse parts, their symmetry, their happy balance; in a word it is all that introduces order, all that gives unity, that permits us to see clearly and to comprehend at once both the ensemble and the details.
Quoted in N Rose Mathematical Maxims and Minims (Raleigh N C 1988).

Thus, be it understood, to demonstrate a theorem, it is neither necessary nor even advantageous to know what it means. The geometer might be replaced by the "logic piano" imagined by Stanley Jevons; or, if you choose, a machine might be imagined where the assumptions were put in at one end, while the theorems came out at the other, like the legendary Chicago machine where the pigs go in alive and come out transformed into hams and sausages. No more than these machines need the mathematician know what he does.
Quoted in J R Newman, The World of Mathematics (New York 1956).

Talk with M. Hermite. He never evokes a concrete image, yet you soon perceive that the more abstract entities are to him like living creatures.
Quoted in G Simmons Calculus Gems (New York 1992).

Science is built up with facts, as a house is with stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house.
La Science et l'hypothèse.

A scientist worthy of his name, about all a mathematician, experiences in his work the same impression as an artist; his pleasure is as great and of the same nature.
Quoted in N Rose Mathematical Maxims and Minims (Raleigh N C 1988).

The mathematical facts worthy of being studied are those which, by their analogy with other facts, are capable of leading us to the knowledge of a physical law. They reveal the kinship between other facts, long known, but wrongly believed to be strangers to one another.
Quoted in N Rose Mathematical Maxims and Minims (Raleigh N C 1988).

Mathematicians do not study objects, but relations between objects. Thus, they are free to replace some objects by others so long as the relations remain unchanged. Content to them is irrelevant: they are interested in form only.

Thought is only a flash between two long nights, but this flash is everything.
Quoted in J R Newman, The World of Mathematics (New York 1956).

The mind uses its faculty for creativity only when experience forces it to do so.

Mathematical discoveries, small or great are never born of spontaneous generation They always presuppose a soil seeded with preliminary knowledge and well prepared by labour, both conscious and subconscious.

Absolute space, that is to say, the mark to which it would be necessary to refer the earth to know whether it really moves, has no objective existence.... The two propositions: "The earth turns round" and "it is more convenient to suppose the earth turns round" have the same meaning; there is nothing more in the one than in the other.
La Science et l'hypothèse.

...by natural selection our mind has adapted itself to the conditions of the external world. It has adopted the geometry most advantageous to the species or, in other words, the most convenient. Geometry is not true, it is advantageous.
Science and Method.

One would have to have completely forgotten the history of science so as to not remember that the desire to know nature has had the most constant and the happiest influence on the development of mathematics.

Les faits ne parlent pas
Facts do not speak.

If one looks at the different problems of the integral calculus which arise naturally when one wishes to go deep into the different parts of physics, it is impossible not to be struck by the analogies existing. Whether it be electrostatics or electrodynamics, the propogation of heat, optics, elasticity, or hydrodynamics, we are led always to differential equations of the same family. American Journal of Physics 12 (1890) 211.

When one tries to depict the figure formed by these two curves and their infinity of intersections, each of which corresponds to a doubly asymptotic solution, these intersections form a kind of net, web or infinitely tight mesh . . . . One is struck by the complexity of this figure that I am not even attempting to draw.

If geometry were an experimental science, it would not be an exact science. it would be subject to continual revision ... the geometrical axioms are therefore neither synthetic a priori intuitions nor experimental facts. They are conventions. Our choice among all possible conventions is guided by experimental facts; but it remains free, and is only limited by the necessity of avoiding every contradiction, and thus it is that postulates may remain rigorously true even when the experimental laws which have determined their adoption are only approximate. In other words the axioms of geometry (I do not speak of those of arithmetic) are only definitions in disguise. What then are we to think of the question: Is Euclidean geometry true? It has no meaning. We might as well ask if the metric system is true and if the old weights and measures are false; if Cartesian coordinates are true and polar coordinates are false. One geometry cannot be more true than another; it can only be more convenient.
Quoted in M J Greenberg, Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometries: Development and history (San Fransisco, 1980).

The scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing, and if nature were not worth knowing, life would not be worth living. Of course I do not here speak of that beauty that strikes the senses, the beauty of qualities and appearances; not that I undervalue such beauty, far from it, but it has nothing to do with science; I mean that profounder beauty which comes from the harmonious order of the parts, and which a pure intelligence can grasp.

... it may happen that small differences in the initial conditions produce very great ones in the final phenomena.

Zero is the number of objects that satisfy a condition that is never satisfied. But as never means "in no case", I do not see that any progress has been made.


JOC/EFR December 2013

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