Joseph Fourier

French mathematician and physicist (1768 – 1830)

Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier (March 21, 1768May 16, 1830) was a French mathematician and physicist who is best known for initiating the investigation of Fourier series and their application to problems of heat flow. The Fourier transform is also named in his honor.

Profound study of nature is the most fertile source of mathematical discoveries.


This difficult science is formed slowly, but it preserves every principle which it has once acquired; it grows and strengthens itself incessantly in the midst of the many variations and errors of the human mind.

The Analytical Theory of Heat (1878)

As translated by Alexander Freeman - Full text online
  • The analytical equations, unknown to the ancient geometers, which Descartes was the first to introduce into the study of curves and surfaces, are not restricted to the properties of figures, and to those properties which are the object of rational mechanics; they extend to all general phenomena. There cannot be a language more universal and more simple, more free from errors and from obscurities, that is to say more worthy to express the invariable relations of natural things.
    Considered from this point of view, mathematical analysis is as extensive as nature itself; it defines all perceptible relations, measures times, spaces, forces, temperatures; this difficult science is formed slowly, but it preserves every principle which it has once acquired; it grows and strengthens itself incessantly in the midst of the many variations and errors of the human mind.
    Its chief attribute is clearness; it has no marks to express confused notions. It brings together phenomena the most diverse, and discovers the hidden analogies which unite them.
    • Preliminary Discourse, p.7 Note: often quoted as Mathematics [or mathematical analysis] compares the most diverse phenomena and discovers the secret analogies that unite them.
  • Primary causes are unknown to us; but are subject to simple and constant laws, which may be discovered by observation, the study of them being the object of natural philosophy.
    Heat, like gravity, penetrates every substance of the universe, its rays occupy all parts of space. The object of our work is to set forth the mathematical laws which this element obeys. The theory of heat will hereafter form one of the most important branches of general physics.
    • Ch. 1, p. 1
  • If we consider further the manifold relations of this mathematical theory to civil uses and the technical arts, we shall recognize completely the extent of its applications. It is evident that it includes an entire series of distinct phenomena, and that the study of it cannot be omitted without losing a notable part of the science of nature.
    The principles of the theory are derived, as are those of rational mechanics, from a very small number of primary facts, the causes of which are not considered by geometers, but which they admit as the results of common observations confirmed by all experiment.
    • Ch. 1, p. 6
  • Profound study of nature is the most fertile source of mathematical discoveries.
    • Ch. 1, p. 7

Quotes about Fourier

  • In a military school directed by monks, the minds of the pupils necessarily waver only between two careers in life—the church and the sword. Like Descartes, Fourier wished to be a soldier; like that philosopher he would doubtless have found the life of a garrison very wearisome. But he was not permitted to make the experiment. His demand to undergo the examination for the artillery, although strongly supported by our illustrious colleague Legendre, was rejected with a severity of expression of which you may judge yourselves: "Fourier," replied the minister, "not being noble, could not enter the artillery, although he were a second Newton."
  • Fourier's analytical theory of heat (final form, 1822), devised in the Galileo-Newton tradition of controlled observation plus mathematics, is the ultimate source of much modern work in the theory of functions of a real variable and in the critical examination of the foundation of mathematics.
  • At the age of twenty-one he went to Paris to read before the Academy of Sciences a memoir on the resolution of numerical equations, which was an improvement on Newton's method of approximation. This investigation of his early youth he never lost sight of. He lectured upon it... he developed it... it constituted a part of a work entitled Analyse des equations determines (1831), which was in press when death overtook him. This work contained "Fourier's theorem" on the number of real roots between two chosen limits. Budan had published this result as early as 1807, but there is evidence to show that Fourier had established it before Budan's publication. These brilliant results were eclipsed by the theorem of Sturm, published in 1835.
  • Fourier took a prominent part at his home in promoting the Revolution. Under the French Revolution the arts and sciences seemed for a time to flourish. ...The Normal School was created in 1795, of which Fourier became at first pupil, then lecturer. His brilliant success secured him a chair in the Polytechnic School, the duties of which he afterwards quitted, along with Monge and Berthollet, to accompany Napoleon on his campaign to Egypt. Napoleon founded the Institute of Egypt, of which Fourier became secretary. In Egypt he engaged not only in scientific work, but discharged important political functions. ...In 1827 Fourier succeeded Laplace as president of the council of the Polytechnic School.
    • Florian Cajori, A History of Mathematics (1893)
  • He carried on his elaborate investigations on the propagation of heat in solid bodies, published in 1822 in his work entitled La Theorie Analytique de la Chaleur. This work marks an epoch in the history of mathematical physics. "Fourier's series" constitutes its gem. By this research a long controversy was brought to a close, and the fact established that any arbitrary function can be represented by a trigonometric series. The first announcement of this great discovery was made by Fourier in 1807 before the French Academy. The trigonometric series   represents the function   for every value of   if the coefficients  , and   be equal to a similar integral. The weak point in Fourier's analysis lies in his failure to prove generally that the trigonometric series actually converges to the value of the function.
  • It is true that M. Fourier had the opinion that the principal end of mathematics was the public utility and the explanation of natural phenomena; but such a philosopher as he is should have known that the unique end of science is the honor of the human mind, and that from this point of view a question of number is as important as a question of the system of the world.
    • Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi, Letter to Legendre (July 2, 1830) in response to Fourier's report to the Paris Academy Science that mathematics should be applied to the natural sciences, as quoted in Science (March 10, 1911) Vol. 33, p.359, with additional citations and dates from H. Pieper, "Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi," Mathematics in Berlin (2012) p.46
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