, Volume 7, Issue 3, pp 268-292

Poincaré’s Relativistic Physics: Its Origins and Nature

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Henri Poincaré (1854–1912) developed a relativistic physics by elevating the empirical inability to detect absolute motion, or motion relative to the ether, to the principle of relativity, and its mathematics ensured that it would be compatible with that principle. Although Poincaré’s aim and theory were similar to those of Albert Einstein (1879–1955) in creating his special theory of relativity, Poincaré’s relativistic physics should not be seen as an attempt to achieve Einstein’s theory but as an independent endeavor. Poincaré was led to advance the principle of relativity as a consequence of his reflections on late nineteenth-century electrodynamics; of his conviction that physics should be formulated as a physics of principles; of his conventionalistic arguments on the nature of time and its measurement; and of his knowledge of the experimental failure to detect absolute motion. The nonrelativistic theory of electrodynamics of Hendrik A.Lorentz (1853–1928) of 1904 provided the means for Poincaré to elaborate a relativistic physics that embraced all known physical forces, including that of gravitation. Poincaré did not assume any dynamical explanation of the Lorentz transformation, which followed from the principle of relativity, and he did not seek to dismiss classical concepts, such as that of the ether, in his new relativistic physics.