Poincaré on the future of mathematics

Henri Poincaré published Science and méthode in Paris in 1908. An English translation by Francis Maitland was published by Thomas Nelson and Sons in London in 1914. It contains a number of articles written over a number of years and we present a version of one of these on The future of mathematics. We have split the article into two parts with the first part given below.

The future of Mathematics

Henri Poincaré

If we wish to foresee the future of mathematics, our proper course is to study the history and present condition of the science.

For us mathematicians, is not this procedure to some extent professional? We are accustomed to extrapolation, which is a method of deducing the future from the past and the present; and since we are well aware of its limitations, we run no risk of deluding ourselves as to the scope of the results it gives us.

In the past there have been prophets of ill. They took pleasure in repeating that all problems susceptible of being solved had already been solved, and that after them there would be nothing left but gleanings. Happily we are reassured by the example of the past. Many times already men have thought that they had solved all the problems, or at least that they had made an inventory of all that admit of solution. And then the meaning of the word solution has been extended; the insoluble problems have become the most interesting of all, and other problems hitherto undreamed of have presented themselves. For the Greeks a good solution was one that employed only rule and compass; later it became one obtained by the extraction of radicals, then one in which algebraical functions and radicals alone figured. Thus the pessimists found themselves continually passed over, continually forced to retreat, so that at present I verily believe there are none left.

My intention, therefore, is not to refute them, since they are dead. We know very well that mathematics will continue to develop, but we have to find out in what direction. I shall be told "in all directions," and that is partly true; but if it were altogether true, it would become somewhat alarming. Our riches would soon become embarrassing, and their accumulation would soon produce a mass just as impenetrable as the unknown truth was to the ignorant.

The historian and the physicist himself must make a selection of facts. The scientist's brain, which is only a corner of the universe, will never be able to contain the whole universe; whence it follows that, of the innumerable facts offered by nature, we shall leave some aside and retain others. The same is true, a fortiori, in mathematics. The mathematician similarly cannot retain pell-mell all the facts that are presented to him, the more so that it is himself - I was almost going to say his own caprice - that creates these facts. It is he who assembles the elements and constructs a new combination from top to bottom; it is generally not brought to him ready-made by nature.

No doubt it is sometimes the case that a mathematician attacks a problem to satisfy some requirement of physics, that the physicist or the engineer asks him to make a calculation in view of some particular application. Will it be said that we geometricians are to confine ourselves to waiting for orders, and, instead of cultivating our science for our own pleasure, to have no other care but that of accommodating ourselves to our clients' tastes? If the only object of mathematics is to come to the help of those who make a study of nature, it is to them we must look for the word of command. Is this the correct view of the matter? Certainly not; for if we had not cultivated the exact sciences for themselves, we should never have created the mathematical instrument, and when the word of command came from the physicist we should have been found without arms.

Similarly, physicists do not wait to study a phenomenon until some pressing need of material life makes it an absolute necessity, and they are quite right. If the scientists of the eighteenth century had disregarded electricity, because it appeared to them merely a curiosity having no practical interest, we should not have, in the twentieth century, either telegraphy or electro-chemistry or electro-traction. Physicists forced to select are not guided in their selection solely by utility. What method, then, do they pursue in making a selection between the different natural facts? I have explained this in the preceding chapter. The facts that interest them are those that may lead to the discovery of a law, those that have an analogy with many other facts and do not appear to us as isolated, but as closely grouped with others. The isolated fact attracts the attention of all, of the layman as well as the scientist. But what the true scientist alone can see is the link that unites several facts which have a deep but hidden analogy. The anecdote of Newton's apple is probably not true, but it is symbolical, so we will treat it as if it were true. Well, we must suppose that before Newton's day many men had seen apples fall, but none had been able to draw any conclusion. Facts would be barren if there were not minds capable of selecting between them and distinguishing those which have something hidden behind them and recognizing what is hidden-minds which, behind the bare fact, can detect the soul of the fact.

In mathematics we do exactly the same thing. Of the various elements at our disposal we can form millions of different combinations, but any one of these combinations, so long as it is isolated, is absolutely without value; often we have taken great trouble to construct it, but it is of absolutely no use, unless it be, perhaps, to supply a subject for an exercise in secondary schools. It will be quite different as soon as this combination takes its place in a class of analogous combinations whose analogy we have recognized; we shall then be no longer in presence of a fact, but of a law. And then the true discoverer will not be the workman who has patiently built up some of these combinations, but the man who has brought out their relation. The former has only seen the bare fact, the latter alone has detected the soul of the fact The invention of a new word will often be sufficient to bring out the relation, and the word will be creative. The history of science furnishes us with a host of examples that are familiar to all.

The celebrated Viennese philosopher Mach has said that the part of science is to effect economy of thought, just as a machine effects economy of effort, and this is very true. The savage calculates on his fingers, or by putting together pebbles. By teaching children the multiplication table we save them later on countless operations with pebbles. Some one once recognized, whether by pebbles or otherwise, that 6 times 7 are 42, and had the idea of recording the result, and that is the reason why we do not need to repeat the operation. His time was not wasted even if he was only calculating for his own amusement. His operation only took him two minutes, but it would have taken two million, if a million people had had to repeat it after him.

Thus the importance of a fact is measured by the return it gives - that is, by the amount of thought it enables us to economize.

In physics, the facts which give a large return are those which take their place in a very general law, because they enable us to foresee a very large number of others, and it is exactly the same in mathematics. Suppose I apply myself to a complicated calculation and with much difficulty arrive at a result, I shall have gained nothing by my trouble if it has not enabled me to foresee the results of other analogous calculations, and to direct them with certainty, avoiding the blind groping with which I had to be contented the first time. On the contrary, my time will not have been lost if this very groping has succeeded in revealing to me the profound analogy between the problem just dealt with and a much more extensive class of other problems; if it has shown me at once their resemblances and their differences; if, in a word, it has enabled me to perceive the possibility of a generalization. Then it will not be merely a new result that I have acquired, but a new force.

An algebraical formula which gives us the solution of a type of numerical problems, if we finally replace the letters by numbers, is the simple example which occurs to one's mind at once. Thanks to the formula, a single algebraical calculation saves us the trouble of a constant repetition of numerical calculations. But this is only a rough example: every one feels that there are analogies which cannot be expressed by a formula, and that they are the most valuable.

If a new result is to have any value, it must unite elements long since known, but till then scattered and seemingly foreign to each other, and suddenly introduce order where the appearance of disorder reigned. Then it enables us to see at a glance each of these elements in the place it occupies in the whole. Not only is the new fact valuable on its own account, but it alone gives a value to the old facts it unites. Our mind is frail as our senses are; it would lose itself in the complexity of the world if that complexity were not harmonious; like the short-sighted, it would only see the details, and would be obliged to forget each of these details before examining the next, because it would- be incapable of taking in the whole. The only facts worthy of our attention are those which introduce order into this complexity and so make it accessible to us.

Mathematicians attach a great importance to the elegance of their methods and of their results, and this is not mere dilettantism. What is it that gives us the feeling of elegance in a solution or a demonstration? It is the harmony of the different parts, their symmetry, and their happy adjustment; it is, in a word, all that introduces order, all that gives them unity, that enables us to obtain a clear comprehension of the whole as well as of the parts. But that is also precisely what causes it to give a large return; and in fact the more we see this whole clearly and at a single glance, the better we shall perceive the analogies with other neighbouring objects, and consequently the better chance we shall have of guessing the possible generalizations. Elegance may result from the feeling of surprise caused by the unlooked-for occurrence together of objects not habitually associated. In this, again, it is fruitful, since it thus discloses relations till then unrecognized. It is also fruitful even when it only results from the contrast between the simplicity of the means and the complexity of the problem presented, for it then causes us to reflect on the reason for this contrast, and generally shows us that this reason is not chance, but is to be found in some unsuspected law. Briefly stated, the sentiment of mathematical elegance is nothing but the satisfaction due to some conformity between the solution we wish to discover and the necessities of our mind, and it is on account of this very conformity that the solution can be an instrument for us. This aesthetic satisfaction is consequently connected with the economy of thought. Again the comparison with the Erechtheum occurs to me, but I do not wish to serve it up too often.

It is for the same reason that, when a somewhat lengthy calculation has conducted us to some simple and striking result, we are not satisfied until we have shown that we might have foreseen, if not the whole result, at least its most characteristic features. Why is this? What is it that prevents our being contented with a calculation which has taught us apparently all that we wished to know? The reason is that, in analogous cases, the lengthy calculation might not be able to be used again, while this is not true of the reasoning, often semi-intuitive, which might have enabled us to foresee the result. This reasoning being short, we can see all the parts at a single glance, so that we perceive immediately what must be changed to adapt it to all the problems of a similar nature that may be presented. And since it enables us to foresee whether the solution of these problems will be simple, it shows us at least whether the calculation is worth undertaking.

What I have just said is sufficient to show how vain it would be to attempt to replace the mathematician's free initiative by a mechanical process of any kind. In order to obtain a result having any real value, it is not enough to grind out calculations, or to have a machine for putting things in order: it is not order only, but unexpected order, that has a value. A machine can take hold of the bare fact, but the soul of the fact will always escape it.

Since the middle of last century, mathematicians have become more and more anxious to attain to absolute exactness. They are quite right, and this tendency will become more and more marked. In mathematics, exactness is not everything, but without it there is nothing: a demonstration which lacks exactness is nothing at all. This is a truth that I think no one will dispute, but if it is taken too literally it leads us to the conclusion that before 1820, for instance, there was no such thing as mathematics, and this is clearly an exaggeration. The geometricians of that day were willing to assume what we explain by prolix dissertations. This does not mean that they did not see it at all, but they passed it over too hastily, and, in order to see it clearly, they would have had to take the trouble to state it.

Only, is it always necessary to state it so many times? Those who were the first to pay special attention to exactness have given us reasonings that we may attempt to imitate; but if the demonstrations of the future are to be constructed on this model, mathematical works will become exceedingly long, and if I dread length, it is not only because I am afraid of the congestion of our libraries, but because I fear that as they grow in length our demonstrations will lose that appearance of harmony which plays such a useful part, as I have just explained.

It is economy of thought that we should aim at, and therefore it is not sufficient to give models to be copied. We must enable those that come after us to do without the models, and not to repeat a previous reasoning, but summarize it in a few lines. Arid this has already been done successfully in certain cases. For instance, there was a whole class of reasonings that resembled each other, and were found everywhere; they were perfectly exact, but they were long. One day some one thought of the term "uniformity of convergence," and this term alone made them useless; it was no longer necessary to repeat them, since they could now be assumed. Thus the hair-splitters can render us a double service, first by teaching us to do as they do if necessary, but more especially, by enabling us as often as possible not to do as they do, and yet make no sacrifice of exactness.

One example has just shown us the importance of terms in mathematics; but I could quote many others. It is hardly possible to believe what economy of thought, as Mach used to say, can be effected by a well-chosen term. I think I have already said somewhere that mathematics is the art of giving the same name to different things. It is enough that these things, though differing in matter, should be similar in form, to permit of their being, so to speak, run in the same mould. When language has been well chosen, one is astonished to find that all demonstrations made for a known object apply immediately to many new objects: nothing requires to be changed, not even the terms, since the names have become the same.

A well-chosen term is very often sufficient to remove the exceptions permitted by the rules as stated in the old phraseology. This accounts for the invention of negative quantities, imaginary quantities, decimals to infinity, and I know not what else. And we must never forget that exceptions are pernicious, because they conceal laws.

This is one of the characteristics by which we recognize facts which give a great return: they are the facts which permit of these happy innovations of language. The bare fact, then, has sometimes no great interest: it may have been noted many times without rendering any great service to science; it only acquires a value when some more careful thinker perceives the connection it brings out, and symbolizes it by a term.

Last Updated August 2007