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On the article by Henri Poincaré “On the dynamics of the electron”. (English) Zbl 0858.01020
The main thesis of this paper is that H. Poincaré discovered special relativity by June and July 1905. The author says that those who doubt that thesis “either had not read [Poincaré’s articles] carefully, and so did not understand them, or …they were just not capable of understanding relativity theory.” He mentions Louis de Broglie and P. A. M. Dirac as examples of such people. In 1984 the author published a book [The works of Henri Poincaré on “Dynamics of the electron”. Moskva: Institut Yadernykh Issled. AN SSSR (1984; Zbl 0626.01037) (in Russian)], which, he says, “had quite a big success among specialists interested in the history of physics, and since 1984 it has been published in Russian three times.” This paper is an English translation (made by G. Pontecorvo) of the 1988 edition of that book [2nd ed., rev. and compl. (1988; Zbl 0678.01016)]. The author claims that it contains “[t]he first complete translations into English” of two articles by H. Poincaré [Sur la dynamique de l’électron, C.R. Acad. Sci., Paris 140, 1504-1508 (1905); Rend. Circ. Mat. Palermo 21, 129-175 (1906)]. “In preparing the English text, fragments were used of the translation of the long article of H. Poincaré” published in [C. W. Kilmister, Special theory of relativity, New York, Pergamon Press (1970)]. The shorter paper of Poincaré and the rest of the longer paper are translated into English from the Russian translation published in the author’s book. The author changed Poincaré’s original notation to “modern notation”. Poincaré’s text is “accompanied by short comments, written together with Prof. V. A. Matveyev”. These comments explain to the reader what Poincaré meant. For example, the translation of the shorter paper, which is 118 lines long, contains six “short comments” of the author that are 156 lines long. The longer paper contains 22 “short comments”, which take about 10 full pages. These comments contain quotations from Lorentz, Pauli and other physicists, usually translated into English from their Russian translations. References to previous comments are sometimes given as page and footnotes numbers of the Russian original rather than the English translation. Besides V. A. Matveyev, the author thanks V. G. Kadyshevsky for his interest in this enterprise.
Reviewer’s Remark. The claim of the first complete English translations is somewhat doubtful. Kilmister’s book contains a literal English translation of Parts I and III of Poincaré’s longer paper. Its full rendering in English was published by H. M. Schwartz in Am. J. Phys., Part I 39, 1287-1294 (1971); Part II, 40, 862-872 (1972); and Part III, 40, 1282-1287 (1972)]. As the author, Schwartz replaced Poincaré’s notations by modern ones. Unlike the author, Schwartz gave very careful comments on the differences of his notations from the original ones so that the reader could make his own judgement on what (and how) was really said by Poincaré. Also, Schwartz made his English translation directly from French. The reviewer has not been persuaded by the author. When trying to evaluate the undisputable contribution made by H. Poincaré to the pre-history of special relativity, many would prefer Poincaré’s original French to English translations of his French made through the medium of Russian, with notations changed by an obviously partisan author who, with a perfect hindsight, tries to tell the reader what Poincaré really said and meant. For example, in one of his key statements Poincaré says that the attempts of measuring the absolute motion of the earth with respect to the ether failed and conjectures: “It seems that this impossibility to disclose experimentally the absolute motion of the earth is a general law of nature”. However, I have not found indications that Poincaré doubted the existence of this absolute motion. Thus, having come to the borderline between the Galilean and relativistic paradigms, Poincaré did not cross the line, although he came close enough and, had Einstein not published his discovery, Poincaré might have arrived at special relativity soon after. Quoting Louis de Broglie, “Poincaré did not succeed in making the decisive step”. I doubt that de Broglie was “just not capable of understanding relativity theory”, and I doubt that his personal integrity would allow him to make statements about Poincaré without reading Poincaré’s articles. A possible conclusion is that de Broglie’s French was inferior to that of the author.
MSC:
01A60 History of mathematics in the 20th century
83-03 History of relativity and gravitational theory
Biographic References:
Poincaré, H.
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