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

by
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.


The physicists also proceed in exactly the same way. They have invented the term "energy," and the term has been enormously fruitful, because it also creates a law by eliminating exceptions; because it gives the same name to things which differ in matter, but are similar in form.

Among the terms which have exercised the most happy influence I would note "group" and "invariable." They have enabled us to perceive the essence of many mathematical reasonings, and have shown us in how many cases the old mathematicians were dealing with groups without knowing it, and how, believing themselves far removed from each other, they suddenly found themselves close together without understanding why.

To-day we should say that they had been examining isomorphic groups. We now know that, in a group, the matter is of little interest, that the form only is of importance, and that when we are well acquainted with one group, we know by that very fact all the isomorphic groups. Thanks to the terms "group" and "isomorphism," which sum up this subtle rule in a few syllables, and make it readily familiar to all minds, the passage is immediate, and can be made without expending any effort of thinking. The idea of group is, moreover, connected with that of transformation. Why do we attach so much value to the discovery of a new transformation? It is because, from a single theorem, it enables us to draw ten or twenty others. It has the same value as a zero added to the right of a whole number.

This is what has determined the direction of the movement of mathematical science up to the present, and it is also most certainly what will determine it in the future. But the nature of the problems which present themselves contributes to it in an equal degree. We cannot forget what our aim should be, and in my opinion this aim is a double one. Our science borders on both philosophy and physics, and it is for these two neighbours that we must work. And so we have always seen, and we shall still see, mathematicians advancing in two opposite directions.

On the one side, mathematical science must reflect upon itself, and this is useful because reflecting upon itself is reflecting upon the human mind which has created it; the more so because, of all its creations, mathematics is the one for which it has borrowed least from outside. This is the reason for the utility of certain mathematical speculations, such as those which have in view the study of postulates, of unusual geometries, of functions with strange behaviour. The more these speculations depart from the most ordinary conceptions, and, consequently, from nature and applications to natural problems, the better will they show us what the human mind can do when it is more and more withdrawn from the tyranny of the exterior world; the better, consequently, will they make us know this mind itself.

But it is to the opposite side, to the side of nature, that we must direct our main forces.

There we meet the physicist or the engineer, who says, "Will you integrate this differential equation for me; I shall need it within a week for a piece of construction work that has to be completed by a certain date?" "This equation," we answer, "is not included in one of the types that can be integrated, of which you know there are not very many." "Yes, I know; but, then, what good are you?" More often than not a mutual understanding is sufficient. The engineer does not really require the integral in finite terms, he only requires to know the general behaviour of the integral function, or he merely wants a certain figure which would be easily deduced from this integral if we knew it. Ordinarily we do not know it, but we could calculate the figure without it, if we knew just what figure and what degree of exactness the engineer required.

Formerly an equation was not considered to have been solved until the solution had been expressed by means of a finite number of known functions. But this is impossible in about ninety-nine cases out of a hundred. What we can always do, or rather what we should always try to do, is to solve the problem qualitatively, so to speak - that is, to try to know approximately the general form of the curve which represents the unknown function.

It then remains to find the exact solution of the problem. But if the unknown cannot be determined by a finite calculation, we can always represent it by an infinite converging series which enables us to calculate it. Can this be regarded as a true solution? The story goes that Newton once communicated to Leibnitz an anagram somewhat like the following: aaaaabbbeeeeii, etc. Naturally, Leibnitz did not understand it at all, but we who have the key know that the anagram, translated into modern phraseology, means, "I know how to integrate all differential equations," and we are tempted to make the comment that Newton was either exceedingly fortunate or that he had very singular illusions. What he meant to say was simply that he could form (by means of indeterminate coefficients) a series of powers formally satisfying the equation presented.

To-day a similar solution would no longer satisfy us, for two reasons - because the convergence is too slow, and because the terms succeed one another without obeying any law. On the other hand the series q appears to us to leave nothing to be desired, first, because it converges very rapidly (this is for the practical man who wants his number as quickly as possible), and secondly, because we perceive at a glance the law of the terms, which satisfies the aesthetic requirements of the theorist.

There are, therefore, no longer some problems solved and others unsolved, there are only problems more or less solved, according as this is accomplished by a series of more or less rapid convergence or regulated by a more or less harmonious law. Nevertheless an imperfect solution may happen to lead us towards a better one.

Sometimes the series is of such slow convergence that the calculation is impracticable, and we have only succeeded in demonstrating the possibility of the problem. The engineer considers this absurd, and he is right, since it will not help him to complete his construction within the time allowed. He doesn't trouble himself with the question whether it will be of use to the engineers of the twenty-second century. We think differently, and we are sometimes more pleased at having economized a day's work for our grandchildren than an hour for our contemporaries.

Sometimes by groping, so to speak, empirically, we arrive at a formula that is sufficiently convergent. What more would you have? says the engineer; and yet, in spite of everything, we are not satisfied, for we should have liked to be able to predict the convergence. And why? Because if we had known how to predict it in the one case, we should know how to predict it in another. We have been successful, it is true, but that is little in our eyes if we have no real hope of repeating our success.

In proportion as the science develops, it becomes more difficult to take it in its entirety. Then an attempt is made to cut it in pieces and to be satisfied with one of these pieces - in a word, to specialize. Too great a movement in this direction would constitute a serious obstacle to the progress of the science. As I have said, it is by unexpected concurrences between its different parts that it can make progress. Too much specializing would prohibit these concurrences. Let us hope that congresses, such as those of Heidelberg and Rome, by putting us in touch with each other, will open up a view of our neighbours' territory, and force us to compare it with our own, and so escape in a measure from our own little village. In this way they will be the best remedy against the danger I have just noted.

But I have delayed too long over generalities; it is time to enter into details.

Let us review the different particular sciences which go to make up mathematics; let us see what each of them has done, in what direction it is tending, and what we may expect of it. If the preceding views are correct, we should see that the great progress of the past has been made when two of these sciences have been brought into conjunction, when men have become aware of the similarity of their form in spite of the dissimilarity of their matter, when they have modelled themselves upon each other in such a way that each could profit by the triumphs of the other. At the same time we should look to concurrences of a similar nature for progress in the future.

ARITHMETIC.

The progress of arithmetic has been much slower than that of algebra and analysis, and it is easy to understand the reason. The feeling of continuity is a precious guide which fails the arithmetician. Every whole number is separated from the rest, and has, so to speak, its own individuality; each of them is a sort of exception, and that is the reason why general theorems will always be less common in the theory of numbers, and also why those that do exist will be more hidden and will longer escape detection.

If arithmetic is backward as compared with algebra and analysis, the best thing for it to do is to try to model itself on these sciences, in order to profit by their advance. The arithmetician then should be guided by the analogies with algebra. These analogies are numerous, and if in many cases they have not yet been studied sufficiently closely to become serviceable, they have at least been long foreshadowed, and the very language of the two sciences shows that they have been perceived. Thus we speak of transcendental numbers, and so become aware of the fact that the future classification of these numbers has already a model in the classification of transcendental functions. However, it is not yet very clear how we are to pass from one classification to the other; but if it were clear it would be already done, and would no longer be the work of the future.

The first example that comes to my mind is the theory of congruents, in which we find a perfect parallelism with that of algebraic equations. We shall certainly succeed in completing this parallelism, which must exist, for instance, between the theory of algebraic curves and that of congruents with two variables. When the problems relating to congruents with several variables have been solved, we shall have made the first step towards the solution of many questions of indeterminate analysis.

ALGEBRA.

The theory of algebraic equations will long continue to attract the attention of geometricians, the sides by which it may be approached being so numerous and so different.

It must not be supposed that algebra is finished because it furnishes rules for forming all possible combinations; it still remains to find interesting combinations, those that satisfy such and such conditions. Thus there will be built up a kind of indeterminate analysis, in which the unknown quantities will no longer be whole numbers but polynomials. So this time it is algebra that will model itself on arithmetic, being guided by the analogy of the whole number, either with the whole polynomial with indefinite coefficients, or with the whole polynomial with whole coefficients.

GEOMETRY.

It would seem that geometry can contain nothing that is not already contained in algebra or analysis, and that geometric facts are nothing but the facts of algebra or analysis expressed in another language. It might be supposed, then, that after the review that has just been made, there would be nothing left to say having any special bearing on geometry. But this would imply a failure to recognize the great importance of a well-formed language, or to understand what is added to things themselves by the method of expressing, and consequently of grouping, those things.

To begin with, geometric considerations lead us to set ourselves new problems. These are certainly, if you will, analytical problems, but they are problems we should never have set ourselves on the score of analysis. Analysis, however, profits by them, as it profits by those it is obliged to solve in order to satisfy the requirements of physics.

One great advantage of geometry lies precisely in the fact that the senses can come to the assistance of the intellect, and help to determine the road to be followed, and many minds prefer to reduce the problems of analysis to geometric form. Unfortunately our senses cannot carry us very far, and they leave us in the lurch as soon as we wish to pass outside the three classical dimensions. Does this mean that when we have left this restricted domain in which they would seem to wish to imprison us, we must no longer count on anything but pure analysis, and that all geometry of more than three dimensions is vain and without object? In the generation which preceded ours, the greatest masters would have answered "Yes." To-day we are so familiar with this notion that we can speak of it, even in a university course, without exciting too much astonishment.

But of what use can it be? This is easy to see. In the first place it gives us a very convenient language, which expresses in very concise terms what the ordinary language of analysis would state in long-winded phrases. More than that, this language causes us to give the same name to things which resemble one another, and states analogies which it does not allow us to forget. It thus enables us still to find our way in that space which is too great for us, by calling to our mind continually the visible space, which is only an imperfect image of it, no doubt, but still an image. Here again, as in all the preceding examples, it is the analogy with what is simple that enables us to understand what is complex.

This geometry of more than three dimensions is not a simple analytical geometry, it is not purely quantitative, but also qualitative, and it is principally on this ground that it becomes interesting. There is a science called Geometry of Position, which has for its object the study of the relations of position of the different elements of a figure, after eliminating their magnitudes. This geometry is purely qualitative; its theorems would remain true if the figures, instead of being exact, were rudely imitated by a child. We can also construct a Geometry of Position of more than three dimensions. The importance of Geometry of Position is immense, and I cannot insist upon it too much; what Riemann, one of its principal creators, has gained from it would be sufficient to demonstrate this. We must succeed in constructing it completely in the higher spaces, and we shall then have an instrument which will enable us really to see into hyperspace and to supplement our senses.

The problems of Geometry of Position would perhaps not have presented themselves if only the language of analysis had been used. Or rather I am wrong, for they would certainly have presented themselves, since their solution is necessary for a host of questions of analysis, but they would have presented themselves isolated, one after the other, and without our being able to perceive their common link.

CANTORISM.

I have spoken above of the need we have of returning continually to the first principles of our science, and of the advantage of this process to the study of the human mind. It is this need which has inspired two attempts which have held a very great place in the most recent history of mathematics. The first is Cantorism, and the services it has rendered to the science are well known. Cantor introduced into the science a new method of considering mathematical infinity, and I shall have occasion to speak of it again in Book Il., chapter iii. One of the characteristic features of Cantorism is that, instead of rising to the general by erecting more and more complicated constructions, and defining by construction, it starts with the genus supremum and only defines, as the scholastics would have said, per genus proximum et differentiam specificam. Hence the horror he has sometimes inspired in certain minds, such as Hermite's, whose favourite idea was to compare the mathematical with the natural sciences. For the greater number of us these prejudices had been dissipated, but it has come about that we have run against certain paradoxes and apparent contradictions, which would have rejoiced the heart of Zeno of Elea and the school of Megara. Then began the business of searching for a remedy, each man his own way. For my part I think, and I am not alone in so thinking, that the important thing is never to introduce any entities but such as can be completely defined in a finite number of words. Whatever be the remedy adopted, we can promise ourselves the joy of the doctor called in to follow a fine pathological case.

THE SEARCH FOR POSTULATES.

Attempts have been made, from another point of view, to enumerate the axioms and postulates more or less concealed which form the foundation of the different mathematical theories, and in this direction Mr Hilbert has obtained the most brilliant results. It seems at first that this domain must be strictly limited, and that there will be nothing more to do when the inventory has been completed, which cannot be long. But when everything has been enumerated, there will be many ways of classifying it all. A good librarian always finds work to do, and each new classification will be instructive for the philosopher.

I here close this review, which I cannot dream of making complete. I think that these examples will have been sufficient to show the mechanism by which the mathematical sciences have progressed in the past, and the direction in which they must advance in the future.


JOC/EFR August 2007

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