Monday, June 14, 2021

New Book on Poincare and Relativity

There is a new book on Henri Poincare, and the author has posted a summary on Wikipedia::
Bruce Popp (2020) [1] argues that Poincaré ([Poi05] and [Poi06]) developed a correct relativistic theory of electrodynamics that achieved both substantial and incomplete progress to a theory of special relativity by a different route from Einstein. This route had its origins in work on radioactivity and electrons. His 1905 and 1906 papers are immediately based on his close reading of [Lor04] and the three divergences from Lorentz that Poincaré identified. For example, he understood Lorentz’s presentation of the transformations based on corresponding states was flawed. Poincaré provided the correct form for the transformations and the understanding that they were coordinate transformations. It is this corrected form that Poincaré named “Lorentz transformations” and that match the form and understanding given to them by Einstein [Ein05c]. Poincaré shows that thus corrected the transformations are a group corresponding to a rotation in four-dimensional space with three spatial and one time dimension and that the space-time interval is an invariant of this group. 
Popp emphasizes that while, as this summary suggests, Poincaré would have been justified in making a series of strong statements about his findings, very surprisingly he did not. In fact, Poincaré does not seem to have understood and synthesized what he showed in 1905. Worse, he contradicts himself in later writing adding to confusion about his work and positions, notably concerning the ether. Popp indicates that this is one reason why Poincaré’s alternate path to special relativity is not fully realized. Another is that Poincaré shows no appreciation of the implications for simultaneity and time; in brief there is nothing comparable to Einstein’s discussion of moving watch hands and trains arriving.

References Popp, Bruce D. (2020). Henri Poincaré: Electrons to special relativity: Translation of selected papers and discussion. Cham: Springer International Publishing. ISBN 978-3-030-48038-7.

This is all conventional wisdom, and here are his main arguments.

Poincare did not brag about his work, as Einstein did. Poincare obviously thought that his papers speak for themselves. He didn't brag about his many other original works either. That was common for scientists. Einstein was the exception, as he made great effort to claim credit for the work of others.

If Poincare understood what he wrote, then he was years ahead of Einstein. The Einstein fans say that this proves that Poincare did not understand what he wrote, but of course that never happens. Obviously Poincare understood what he wrote.

Poincare did not emphasize simultaneity in 1905. As you can read in the Wikipedia article on the subject, Poincare discovered relativistic time synchronization in 1898, and regarded it as a solved problem.

Poincare's contribution has been forgotten. There is some truth to this, as Poincare's work is mostly remembered in two papers by Minkowski, who died shortly afterwards, and in all subsequent work that considers relativity a 4-dimensional theory.

It is amazing how scholars concoct these stories to credit Einstein over Poincare. Our current understanding of relativity is based much more on the work of Poincare than Einstein.

Poincare's works get mentioned on Jordan Ellenberg: Mathematics of High-Dimensional Shapes and Geometries | Lex Fridman Podcast #190. He is praised for his work on celestial mechanics, stability of dynamics, and topology. Discovering relativity is not even mentioned. Einstein's greatest accomplishment was just a poor plagiarization of one of Poincare's minor papers.

After some discussion, the Wikipedia article on Einstein recently removed:

[Einstein is] universally acknowledged to be one of the two greatest physicists of all time, the other being Isaac Newton.
Someone pointed out that polls by PhysicsWorld and UK BBC showed physicists saying that Einstein was the greatest, with Newton in second place.

There continues to be crazy over-the-top idolization of Einstein. Normally a book about a great scholar will simply describe what he did, without gratuitous insults about him being inferior to some other great man.

That's what the above book does. It recognizes what Poincare did, and then makes nonsensical disparaging remarks in order to say that Einstein was better. Maybe someday I will see an Einstein scholar write something like this:

Einstein's 1905 relativity paper was a nice exposition of Lorentz's theory. But it lacked references to earlier theoretical work by Lorentz, FitzGerald, Poincare, and others, and to crucial experimental work by Michelson-Morley and others. It failed to explain how his theory was any different from Lorentz's. Nobody saw any difference, and called it the Lorentz-Einstein theory. Einstein failed to grasp the spacetime geometry, the Lorentz group, the covariance of Maxwell's equations, or the implications for gravity. Einstein shows no appreciation of relativity as a 4-dimensional theory; in brief there is nothing comparable to Poincare's 1905 work, and nothing that led to further work.
Whittaker did say something similar in his 1954 book. Einstein was sill alive, and could not refute it, even though his friend Max Born tried. So all serious scholars know that this Einstein credit for relativity is a hoax. The Einstein worship has only accelerated since then.


  1. If the comments in italics are meant to be quotations of me then they are both inaccurate and out of context.

    You suggest they are in the context of a discussion of my book that you reference. In fact they are in response to your comments on a Talk page on Wikipedia.

    I said nothing about not bragging. Poincare was silent. He did not write another substantive paper on the topic, not one.

    I said nothing about being years ahead of or behind Einstein.

    My book itself has a series of positive affirming statements or conclusions Poincare would have made but did not. It is surprising he did not. The purpose was to emphasize how close Poincare was; I did not attempt a comparison to Einstein. I emphasized that they arrived by different paths that are difficult to compare.

    Poincare, Einstein and many others understood how to use crossed signals to synchronize clocks. There is nothing relativistic about the method. And it has nothing to do with explaining simultaneity, about reconciling what two relativistic observers say abot the order of events.

    Statements like "concoct these stories to credit Einstein over Poincare" and "then makes nonsensical disparaging remarks in order to say that Einstein was better" make several things very clear. First, you have not so much as opened the cover of my book. Second, you failed to distinguish friend from foe as I am very much pro Poincare and I hope this book clarifies the record about what he really did accomplish. Third...

    No, why continue?

    Please take down this post, or remove the words you misattribute to me. Clearly you have not understood correctly.

    Bruce D. Popp

    1. To Bruce D. Popp: "I emphasized that they arrived by different paths that are difficult to compare." We know the path that Lorentz and Poincare took but the path of Einstein remains a mystery. Einstein postulated two 'axioms' which is not how physics is constructed while Lorentz derived his transforms from covariance of Maxwell equations while trying to explain the null result of Michelson experiment. Einstein derived Lorentz transforms all the time implying lack of awareness of Lorentz work from the postulate that c is invariant. This way he could circumvent Lorentz and claim his derivation was original. He was not guided by Michelson experiment of which at various points of life he claimed that he was not aware of it or was aware of it. He claimed that Fizeau experiment was critical to his thinking yet he failed to use Lorentz transforms that he re-discovered to derive Fresnel drag formula. It was Von Laue who derived it in 1907 using Lorentz transforms.

      Poincare did not discuss Einstein works. But after Poincare’s death Lorentz wrote in 1914 about their work in which he stated:

      “[…] the chief difference being that Einstein simply postulates what we have deduced, with some difficulty and not altogether satisfactorily, from the fundamental equations of the electromagnetic field.”

      The question is why Poincare did not discuss Einstein. Perhaps he felt robbed, that Einstein plagiarized his and Lorentz work. Poincare was first to see consequences of Lorentz transforms form Newton dynamics that it would imply relativistic mass, which btw, Lorentz postulated much earlier and used to explain electron deflection in E-M field several years before 1905.

      There is very good reason why Einstein was not awarded Nobel prize for relativity. Physicists knew very well that work on what Einstein claimed was his ab nihilo discovery was going for years. In 1902, Poincaré wrote a letter to the Royal Academy of Sciences in Stockholm recommending the candidacy of Lorentz for a Nobel Prize in Physics. In trying to persuade the Nobel committee about Lorentz’s achievements, Poincaré wrote the following,

      “Why for example all the experiments devoted to demonstrating the Earth’s motion gave negative results? Evidently, there was one general reason behind this; this reason was discovered by Mr. Lorentz and he put it in a striking form with his ingenious invention of ‘reduced time’. Two phenomena taking place in two different places can appear simultaneous even though they are not: everything happens as if the clock in one of these places retards with respect to that of the other, and as if no conceivable experiment could show evidence of this discordance. Now, according to Mr. Lorentz, the effect of the Earth’s motion would be only to give rise to a similar discordance that no experiment could reveal”.

      But current physics textbooks make you believe that it was Einstein who responded to negative results of Michelson experiments and came up with his 1905 theory. Einstein even claimed (though sometimes he did not) that he was not aware of Michelson experiment.

  2. No, I quoted you correctly, and gave a link to the source.

    Now, you say that you did not attempt a comparison of Poincare to Einstein, but your own summary of your own book is mostly making comparisons.

    If there is nothing relativistic about synchronizing clocks, then why do relativity textbooks commonly explain it?

    You very much disparage Poincare. You say he did not understand, he contradicted himself, he added to confusion, he shows no appreciation, etc. You imply that his work was a dead end. Did you mean these things or not?

    I also posted an answer to you over on Wikipedia.

  3. Dear Bruce, and of course, Roger,

    If I may interject, I have two points to note.

    1. I for some time have often fantasized for the existence of a book about the Theory of the Special Relativity which book would rather go in the nature of a particular book on the history of quantum mechanics, viz., the one by Prof. Dr. Malcolm Longair.

    2. Bruce says:

    "The purpose was to emphasize how close Poincare was; ..."

    Wouldn't, Bruce, the purpose in the mind be to *deify* Einstein---by showing how the *Even* Best Mathematical Genius Aside From Hilbert Namely Poincare' failed short? And, how the Jewish Guy Who Withstood 100+ Bad German PhysicistS, And Went On To Write *Even* To The President of the USA About the Nuclear Bomb Which *Forever* Saved The World And All The Careers Of All The Potential and Actual Physicists And Engineers The World Over, Etc.?

    Oh well... May be I am engaged in some kind of a mind-reading here, am I?

    3. Roger says:

    "If there is nothing relativistic about synchronizing clocks, ..."

    Well, Roger, as far as my naive mind goes, the guy who, given the Maxwell-Lorentz EM, first thought of the time dilations etc. gets the honour for laying the groundwork for the *invention* of Special Relativity, full stop. If there is any single guy, I mean. Synchronization of clocks and all can get later; first things first.

    However, as far as *the same* naive mind of mine thinks, Lorentz was *greater* than both Poincare' and Einstein, as far as the *physics* concerning the background of the Relativity Theory goes. ...

    It's just one mind, mind you both, but I, for one, cannot stop thinking (in the sense: despite the summary absence of true knowledge of this area, I haven't ever been able to stop thusly to think) that while Lorentz was handicapped by a proper ontology / philosophy, he did have a better grasp of the *physics*. Better than that of both Poincare' (historically, may be the first) *for* the *Relativity* Theory, *not* EM)) and Einstein (a general mathematician of today's' general precursor a century and more ago.)

    4. I expect Roger forever to fall silent on this comment (not bad!), and for Bruce to take on me a bit later.

    If I *do* study the Relativity Theory, both would be welcome to engage me. Please check back in 2025 or so.

    Best to both of you,
    [PS: I wrote this comment after a drink.
    PPS: The content of this post or the previous exchange on this thread had *absolutely* nothing to do with the immediately aforementioned fact. I think it doesn't take a lot to convince both of you about this fact. Best, anyway,...

  4. Yes, Lorentz discovered the relativity of time. Lorentz alone had the truly ingenious idea of saying that a moving object had a local time that differed from the time of other observers. No one ever found this independently. Poincare and Einstein got it from Lorentz.

  5. Dear Bruce and Roger,

    1. First of all, let me express regret for posting a rather cynical reply to Bruce; for engaging in an impolite way with him. I regret it, and I apologize. I mean it.

    However, I might also note that with so many Einstein *worshipers* around, it *does* become a tad difficult not to turn cynical once in a while---drinks, or no drinks! ... So, there.

    2. Roger,

    Thanks for clarifying. I appreciate your pointers.

    3. Both:

    I am just about beginning carefully going through some preliminary material about SR---just the general outlines of its history, as given in the Wiki articles: "History of special relativity", "Relativity priority dispute", etc.

    Also, the article on the "Lorentz ether theory" at, and similar other sources. Also, this Q&A at StackExchange:

    I am interested in the progression of ideas.

    I haven't even completely gone through the aforementioned articles.

    Even then, I want to highlight the following point.

    4. When people say "aether", especially for criticizing it, they invariably refer to a *mechanical* aether, something like what Maxwell imagined (cf. the article he wrote for Encl. Brit. a long time ago).

    However, Lorentz re-conceptulized the very idea of the aether. His aether was not at all mechanical in nature. Indeed his ideas represent a radical break from the mechanical imagination; he put forth a completely fresh set of ideas. In effect, implicitly, he put forth a radically new *ontology* for EM theory, as it were.

    Everything regarding SR, right from the supposed aether drift, has to be seen in the light of this point.

    An aether wind of the kind they supposed refers to the *mechanical* aether of Maxwell's, and not to the electromagnetic aether of Lorentz'.

    5. Some time ago, I wrote a series of blog posts on ontologies in physics, here:

    These were mere blog posts, written in a rather hurried manner. I plan to revise them more carefully and then upload the PDF(s) at arXiv. (May be later this year or the next year).

    While writing those posts, I was mostly thinking through the things on my own. Any references made to literature (esp. on the Lorentz aether theory) were rather casual and hurried. Referencing was made on the fly. But in any case, I did undertake a thinking through the issues. (That precisely is the reason why the posts need to be revised, in fact!)

    You may wish to have a look at the series, especially the following sections, which more directly deal with the idea of aether, and record my first impressions as I "discovered" that Lorentz had the same or very similar ideas some 90 years ago! The sections to be pointed out are:

    -- section no. 2 in the post no. 4, here:

    -- section no. 12 in the post no. 8, here:


  6. Lorentz Aether Theory and Einstein SR were the same theory. At the time, both were called Lorentz-Einstein theory, and no one saw any difference. The main difference according to writers today is a different opinion about the aether, but Lorentz and Einstein said essentially the same things about the aether. I will post more on this.