Joseph Fourier, 1768 - 830, French.

Physicist and Mathematician


Joseph Fourier was the son of a Parisian tailor. Although he became an orphan at the age of 9, he was educated by the Benedictine Order of the Convent of St Mark after being recommended by the local Bishop.

From there he attended the egrande ecole university in Paris.

The grande ecole was a specialist university; it offered teaching in single academic fields of study, such as Mathematics, or physics.

At the age of 12 years, in 1780, he went to a military school and eventually became a teacher there. He also became a member of the revolutionary committee.

Once the Reign of Terror started, he tried to resign, as it was too violent for him, but that was not possible. He would remain a member of the Committee.

He was subsequently sent to Orleans, where he spoke in defense one of the many groups that were trying to escape the Terror. Inevitably he gained many enemies while there.


Young Joseph

Soon after his return to the benign environment of teaching, he was arrested, and faced the prospect of the guillotine.

 Fortunately, the Terror had been active for long enough for the population of Paris starting to find the number of heads that had been severed to be enough, especially after Maximilien Robespierre lost his head. Robespierre had been a strong advocate of the revolution.

Fourier was released.

He went back to teaching at Ecole Polytechnique where he established himself as a competent and popular teacher. Nevertheless, he was arrested again, on the same charge, but this time he had the support of his students as well eminent members of the staff of the Polytechnique.

Fourier was released again.

He became an outstanding and inspiring teacher and was appointed to the Chair of Analysis and Mechanics.

Next year he was 'invited " or taken to Egypt to be the Science Advisor for Napoleon. Unfortunately, this Napoleonic adventure was not successful, and Fourier returned to Paris, where he was appointed as a Professor of Analysis at the Ecole Polytechnique.

Fourier must have made an impact on Napoleon, because he appointed him to be the Prefect of the Grenoble district. This administrative position would not have been a great honor for Joseph Fourier, the mathematician. Although he may not have found the new job to his liking, he did distinguish himself as a capable and effective administrator.

His time at Grenoble was not entirely lost. While fulfilling his administrating duties, he found time to work on his theory of heat transmission through solid material.

Twelve long years later he was able to return to Paris and was appointed Director of the Statistical Bureau.

Joseph Fourier had a turbulent life at times, with many disruptions to his chosen career, nevertheless, he made significant contributions to physics, principally in the area of heat transmission, and in the mathematics of harmonic analysis.

When first published, some of his theories were not well received, perhaps because they were not understood, the idea of representing any function as a sum of trigonometric functions was novel. Even Laplace and Lagrange did not fully support his theories, they thought they were incredible.

As well, his work on the transmission of heat through solid objects was not universally accepted either, at the time. Also, some researchers claimed they had presented similar theories earlier, while others suggested his mathematical procedures were dubious. All these claims were subsequently shown to be incorrect.

Fourier was the first to suggest the idea of a greenhouse effect.

He showed that when taking into account the earth's size and the distance from the sun, we should have been much colder. He suggested the atmosphere must be insulating the earth, not allowing the heat to be radiated out, as in the greenhouse effect.

Fourier won several awards, but being made a Baron by Napoleon in 1809, after annoying him by not greeting him on his return from Egypt, must have been a surprise.

He was also elected to the prestigious Academie Francaise.

And then, not long before he died he was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Joseph Fourier died at his home after falling down the stairs. He also had a heart problem originating from his time in Egypt, which may have been the cause of the fall.

Click here to acknowledge his genius.

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