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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.