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Biography

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HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: FOURIER (1786-1830)
On 21 December 1807, in one of the most memorable sessions of the French Academy,
Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier, a 21-year-old mathematician and engineer announced a
thesis which began a new chapter in the history of mathematics. “Fourier claimed that,
an arbitrary function, defined in a finite interval by an arbitrary and capricious graph,
can always be resolved into a sum of pure sine and cosine functions. The academicians,
including the great analyst Lagrange, felt that this was entirely incredible. After all,
any superposition of such functions could never give anything other than an infinitely
differentiable function called ‘analytic,’ very far from the arbitrary function claimed by
Fourier. Of course subsequent investigations demonstrated that Fourier’s claim was en-
tirely justified, although he himself was not able to provide the exact proofs, because
he did not have the tools required for the operation with infinite series.”' Further de-
velopments have involved the greatest mathematical minds including Dirichlet, Fejer,
Lagrange, Riemann, Lebesgue, Gauss and Borel. But Fourier’s method, which was de-
veloped in connection with his investigations into the theory of heat conduction, and in
particular the form of the “Fourier Integral”, had no predecessors.
Fourier’s name is known and respected today, but neither his professional nor
personal life were free from hardships. Born in a small village in south France, he
‘was orphaned at age nine when his father, a tailor, died; he was then placed in the
town’s military school. His growing interest in mathematics was coupled with an active
involvement in local affairs: during the French Revolution he was arrested briefly for
the courageous defense of the victims of the Terror. An early teaching career wa:
interrupted as his administrative abilities became known, in 1798 he was selected to join
Napoleon's Egyptian campaign. He became secretary of the Egyptian Institute and held
other diplomatic posts. He proposed a grand compendium of all the treasures which had
been discovered during the Egyptian campaign; this was the first complete list of its kind
ever published, On return to France he was given a prefecture near Grenoble and in 1808
Napoleon conferred a barony on him, but by the end of Napoleon's reign Fourier was
forced to resign his position. Louis XVIII at first opposed his nomination to the Academy
of Sciences because of his association with Napoleon but relented in 1817. From then
until his death he was an active contributor to scientific thought. Throughout his career,
Fourier won the loyality of younger friends by his unselfish support and encouragement;
most older colleagues were impressed with his achievements. A major exception was
Poisson from whom there was continual controversy, criticism and enmity.
The last few years of Fourier’s life were spent increasingly in confinement due to
an illness (possibly myxedema) contracted during his stay in Egypt. But even during
this time he continued publishing. in mechanics, heat transfer, theory of equations and
statistics. Various memorials have been made in his honor, including the renaming of
his secondary school, in Auxerre, to Lycee Fourier. Interestingly, one of his most lasting
accomplishments may be among his least known. Champollion, a student of his from the
Rhone, excited about the Egyptian discoveries that Fourier was cataloging, eventually
was able to translate the “Rosetta Stone.” This is credited as the major breakthrough in
understanding ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.
" ©, Lanczos, Discourse on Fourier Series, Oliver and Boyd, 1966.

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