Foreword to the French edition of All Cry Chaos

I just received the French translation of All Cry Chaos, and the publisher, Cherche Midi, commissioned a Foreword from the Director of the Poincaré Institute of Paris, Cédric Villani.  This mathematician won the Fields Medal (the equivalent of the Nobel Prize) in 2010.  Here’s what he says about my character, named after the great Jules Henri Poincaré.  I am amazed and grateful:

Henri Poincaré . . . five syllables that evoke an iconic figure of science.

Usually considered the greatest mathematician of his time, Poincaré was also a great physicist, a well-informed engineer, an outstanding philosopher; in short, a universal scholar, knowledgeable about all the scientific developments of his era. And for good measure, he was also an accomplished man of letters, whose popular works have been bestsellers.

One hundred years after his death, Poincaré remains a symbol of intelligence, an incarnation of the power and brilliance of the human mind – a mind, like “lightning in a long night,” as fragile as it is precious.

Poincaré tirelessly dedicated his mind to the very things that children dream about: the movements of planets and stars, the flow of water, wireless transmission, the description of the forms that are all around us. Gifted with a sense of childlike wonder, Poincaré also wrote beautiful scientific texts for children, professing that teaching them to marvel was the most important thing in the world.

Today, scientists of all countries revere Poincaré: the founder of topology, creator of the modern theory of dynamical systems, precursor of chaos theory, pioneer of the theory of relativity, visionary explorer of mathematical physics… Poincaré, it is said, is the last man to have advanced our knowledge of all branches of mathematics.

At the Henri Poincaré Institute, in the heart of Paris, each year, thousands of mathematicians and physicists from all over the world celebrate this heritage, studying the abstract mysteries of the universe, each one with their own style and method. One would think of a permanent convention of detectives, working together on hundreds of criminal cases, all linked together.

Because the scientist is indeed a sort of detective, I happened to compare him with Inspector Columbo, putting all his talents into play in order to catch through meticulous footwork the guilty party that his intuition had already allowed him to identify.

A detective, certainly, but in an ethereal world, a world of ideas, a sort of parallel space where humans are replaced by equations, and crimes by theorems; where miscarriages of justice can always be fixed and where the life of the investigator is never in danger. And, actually, Poincaré interacted very little with the real world, leaving political debates to others, and getting involved with issues of human justice only in the glaring absurdity of the Dreyfus Affair, where he was an expert representing the rational voice of the best scientists of the time.

We can still imagine Henri Poincaré becoming a detective of this world, using his prodigious intellectual faculties, his intuition, his insight, his imagination, his memory, in the service of justice.

This is the step taken by Leonard Rosen in this novel: he imagined Henri Poincaré as the hero of an incredible detective story. Henri Poincaré, or an imaginary grandson, it doesn’t matter. The character is indeed a reincarnation of Henri Poincaré. A Poincaré who wouldn’t be isolated behind the abstraction and thickness of bundles of drafts, but instead would be directly in tune with the world, in all its cruelty and crudity. Both more universal and more human than Sherlock Holmes: an insightful thinker, certainly, but also a family man, a traveler, subject to passions, in a fight against the violence and hatred of the world.

Often, when a fictional character is inspired by a real character, the real character appears a little bland compared to the character of romance… but here, it is rather the opposite: the historical character of Poincaré is so extraordinary, so unlikely, that his imaginary alter ego will seem more realistic.

What irony, really, in the narrative created by Leonard Rosen: after having theorized chaos, Henri Poincaré finds himself caught in chaos, not only an observer of things and of men, but also an actor in a confused drama at the center of an inextricable mix of tensions and revenge, fueled by international politics and world economics, a maelstrom where he risks losing his flesh and blood, where he must fight not only others but himself, where he faces death and suffering. Certainly not a story for children!

Whoever has struggled with a mathematical problem as if his life depended on it will be able to see a metaphor for scientific research in the battle of Poincaré fighting to save his family. But here, we will also find a mathematical problem at the heart of the intrigue, as if to remind us of the astonishing power of abstract formalism. Over the past millennia, the progress of fundamental science has helped humans to dictate their own law to the elements, to predict the unpredictable. Mathematical objects are today more present in our world than they ever were: they hide in computers, algorithms, economic exchanges and the technology of daily life. They are more part of our universe than ever. Ordinarily, they are hidden, but in this adventure, they will prove to be at the center of the entire plot…

One will find so many meanings and interpretations behind this adventure of Poincaré. But, overall, we will rejoice in following the path of his thought and his struggle. Occupied in tracking down coincidences and luminous clues, attempting to seize his chance while playing by the rules, Poincaré will face an enemy much more dangerous than an equation, an enemy who doesn’t obey any rules. He will put all his intelligence at play to defeat him, without, however, ever sacrificing his humanity.

 

                                                                                    Cédric VILLANI

                                                                                    Mathematician

                                                            Professor at the University of Lyon

                                                            Director of the Henry Poincaré Institute

 

 

 

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