Letter to the Editor

Scott A. Walter
Isis 99(2), 2008, 374; doi 10.1086/588695

On behalf of the scientific advisory board for Philippe Thomine’s short biopic of Henri Poincaré, a board composed of four scholars affiliated with the Henri Poincaré Archives in Nancy, France (CNRS, UMR 7117), I wish to respond to Yves Gingras’s essay review of this film (Isis, June 2007). While Prof. Gingras allows that the board played only an advisory role in the film’s production, he erroneously lists the Poincaré Archives as a co-producer. The board validated the film’s script, and stands by its decision. Contrary to Gingras’ description of the film as a piece of cleverly subversive, state-sponsored Einstein-bashing, Thomine’s entertaining and instructive documentary is centered on Poincaré’s contributions to science, including the discovery of a class of automorphic functions called Fuchsian functions, the identification of a class of doubly-asymptotic (chaotic) orbits in the restricted three-body problem of celestial mechanics, the foundations of algebraic topology, and his conventionalist philosophy of science. Thomine accomplished all this on a shoestring budget, funded for the most part by the Lorraine Region (from whence Poincaré hailed), in the interest of prompting scientific and technical vocations among high-school students. In light of the film’s target audience, modest budget (110,000 Euros, tax incl.), duration (26 minutes), and distribution (on a French educational channel at 5 a.m., DVD and streaming video), it does not warrant Gingras’ carping review.

Let me also rectify Gingras’ contention that the Poincaré Archives seeks “to promote Poincaré on the national and international scenes.” The original letter in French, published in L’Express (on 6 Dec. 2004) by the Poincaré Archives’ director in response to an inane charge of plagiary leveled against Einstein by a former French Minister of Education, reads as follows: “L’exaggération du rôle de Poincaré dans l’élaboration de la théorie de la relativité ne peut que compromettre nos efforts de mise en valeur, au niveau national et international, de ce grand savant.” I’m not certain of what a Québécois understands by “mettre en valeur,” but in France, this means to show the value of, or to display the qualities of something. For the record, the Henri Poincaré Archives seeks to make Poincaré’s published and unpublished work accessible to scholars and students worldwide. Is this not the historian’s task? Is it not also the duty of the historian of science to give guidance to documentary filmmakers? It would be a shame if Gingras’ shortsighted essay were to lead historians of science to disengage from the production of documentaries, which are an important vector for understanding of science in broader circles.