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March 21: Jean Bapiste Joseph Fourier

Joseph Fourier (1768)

Joseph Fourier

It was on this date, March 21, 1768, that French mathematician and physicist Jean Bapiste Joseph Fourier was born in Auxerre, the son of a tailor. Orphaned at age eight, Fourier was educated by the Benvenistes of the Convent of St. Mark, but abandoned Christianity. He accepted a military lectureship in mathematics at the Polytechnic. Fourier took a prominent part in promoting the French Revolution, and rose to great importance under Napoleon, who took him to Egypt as one of the leaders of his corps of Egyptologists. Napoleon later made him a baron and prefect of the Isère Départment.

Fourier is best known for beginning to describe the solution to the problems of heat transfer and vibrations: the Fourier transformation and Fourier's Law, named in his honor and dubbed “Fourier’s great mathematical poem” by Lord Kelvin. What we today know as the greenhouse effect was discovered by Fourier in 1824. After the fall of Napoleon, the Roman Catholic Church, with whom Fourier was never reconciled, saw to his persecution for his support of the leader. One account, written 40 years after the fact, makes the opposition during the restored French monarchy sound entirely political:

Thanks to political intrigue, the ministers of Louis XVIII. decided that one of the most learned men of France [Baron Fourier] should not belong to the Academy; that a citizen who enjoyed the friendship of all the most distinguished persons in the metropolis, should be publicly stricken with disapprobation!”*

Clerical opposition, however, was not enough to prevent his appointment to the French Academy of Sciences in 1822. Fourier was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences 1830 and also became a member of the British Royal Society. His Analytic Theory of Heat (1822) is counted a classic in physical science and he is also noted for his collation of the classic Description de l’Égypte (“Description of Egypt”; 1809-1829), the landmark scientific description of ancient and modern Egypt as well as its natural history.

Fourier died on 16 May 1830 and was buried in the Père Lachaise Cemete in Paris, in a tomb decorated with an Egyptian motif. It was Baron Joseph Fourier who wrote, “Mathematical Analysis is as extensive as nature herself.”

*Biographies of Distinguished Scientific Men by François Arago, 1857; found at the Project Gutenberg site.

Originally published March 2011 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

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February 20: Pierre Boulle

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