Tag Archives: Henri Poincaré

Henri (Poincaré), Pablo (Picasso), and Albert (Einstein) walk into a bar

The three (Poincaré, Einstein, and Picasso did not meet together) but I like to think  that if they had met, if would have been in a bar (anyone can think of a punchline to the beginning of that joke, please do let me know). On the 100th anniversary of Henri Poincaré’s death, Arthur I Miller has written an essay which he posted on July 17, 2012 on the Guardian Science blogs,

Today, 17 July 2012, is the centenary of the death of the great French polymath Henri Poincaré, once described as the “last of the universalists”. His achievements span mathematics (he set the basis for chaos theory), physics (his mathematical methods are still used in studying elementary particles), philosophy (his framework for exploring scientific theories is still controversial) and the psychology of creativity (he studied the workings of the unconscious).

Poincaré also acted as a surprising link between Einstein and Picasso, who were both inspired by his best-selling Science and Hypothesis, published in 1902.

Here’s the link between the three men,

Working as a patent clerk in Bern, Switzerland, Einstein was at the core of a study group, his “think tank”, one of whom described how Poincaré’s book had “held them spellbound”. In it Poincaré moves from an analysis of scientific theories to analysing perceptions to probing thought itself, transporting the reader in crystal-clear prose to the very frontiers of knowledge. …

But Einstein found Poincaré’s dependence on everyday experience and laboratory data too restricting. In spring 1905, he went one step further. The result was his theory of relativity.

Far from being a stereotypical scientist, Poincaré’s thinking was closer to that of an artist. Édouard Toulouse, a psychologist specialising in creativity, interviewed him in 1897 and wrote that Poincaré’s thought “was spontaneous, little conscious, more like dreaming than rational, seeming most suited to works of pure imagination”.

So it’s hardly surprising that Picasso too was inspired by his work. But how did he hear of him? Picasso had a “think tank”, of avant-garde literati who kept him up to date on the latest developments in science and technology.

Poincaré inspired some of Picasso’s work and a school of painting without ever meeting him, simultaneously inspiring Einstein’s theory of relativity, which Poincaré disagreed with.

I encourage you to read Miller’s essay in full and leave you with this final excerpt,

A highly cultured man, he [Poincaré] was director of l’Académie Française (the pre-eminent French literary academy), as well as President of l’Académie des Sciences, an extraordinary honour.

He once wrote: “It is only through science and art that civilisation is of value.” He straddled two worlds, inspiring both Einstein and Picasso and played a pivotal role in sparking the explosion of creativity in both art and science that set the tenor of the 20th century.