On 29 April 1854, Henri Poincaré (1854–1912) was born at Nancy, France. He has been called the ‘The Last Universalist’ by mathematician Eric Temple Bell (1883–1960) due to numerous contributions in the areas of mechanics, chaos theory, topology and also differential equations.
While working on the three-body problem in classical mechanics, Poincaré discovered that he was able to derive the most important information about the behavior of solutions without having to solve the equation (something which is not always possible). As Poincaré himself wrote “the numerical ‘solution’ of the three-body problem revealed orbits ‘so tangled that I cannot even begin to draw them’,” leading to his recognition as a founder of chaos theory.
Poincaré was raised Roman Catholic and was the brother-in-law of the spiritual philosopher Emile Boutroux (1845–1921). Though he drifted into agnosticism as an adult, Poincaré in ways retained aspects of the religious sensitivities of his youth. N.B. “In 1865, when he was eleven years old, Henri received, together with his cousins Louis and Roger, his First Communion, the sacrament of the Roman Catholic Church… According to his sister, Aline, Henri took this occasion very seriously.”
His later opinions about religion might be summarized by several statements written by Poincaré himself:
“Do not understand this in the sense that I want to prohibit science to religious people, in particular to Roman Catholics. God forbid! I would not be so stupid as to deprive humanity of the services of a Pasteur. There are those who forget their beliefs when they enter a laboratory; as soon as they have their work clothes on, they put a bold face on truth and they have as much critical spirit as anyone else.”
“About the first question [ed: ‘Does science tell us the real nature things?’] nobody hesitates to answer ‘no.’ But I believe one can go further: not only can science not tell us about the nature of things, nothing is able to tell us that, and if some god knew it, he could not find the words to express it. Not only could we not guess the answer, but if one would give it to us, we would not be able to understand it. I even ask myself whether we have a good understanding of the question.”
—Robinson, S. “Chaos Theory.” Polytechnic School’s Mathematical Modeling II with Calculus BC.
—Verhulst, Ferdinand. Henri Poincaré: Impatient Genius. (New York, NY: Springer Science & Business Media, 2012), 10; 80; 93. Image: Artwork by Soshichi Uchii, 2003.