Fourier Analysis, Coups D'etat, Egyptian Heat and the Rosetta Stone; (First of Two Parts)

Article excerpt

What have Fourier series and transforms, the powerful and ubiquitous mathematical tools of modern technology, got to do with the various coups d?etat during the French Revolution, the hot weather of Egypt and the Rosetta Stone? The answer is that they are linked to the life of Baron Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier (17681830), French mathematician, Egyptologist and a truly dedicated public official who needed no lifestyle check for unexplained wealth.

Fourier was a distinguished mathematician who not only did his celebrated work on heat conduction and Fourier analysis but also laid the groundwork for the later development of dimensional analysis and linear programming, along with some investigations to probability theory and the theory of errors. But it is on the political and cultural sides of his life that we will concentrate on in this two-part column to show that (a) no matter how noble the intentions may be, a bloody revolution will often generate greater abuses than the ones it seeks to abolish, and (b) that even an occupying force in a foreign country can also bring cultural upliftment to that country.

Born in Auxerre, a town about 150 kilometers from Paris, and the ninth child of a master tailor, Joseph was only ten when his father died, but his great intelligence gained him a free place at the local Benedictine school, SaintBenoit-sur-Loire. He was to have trained for priesthood, but his interest turned to mathematics and the military. At sixteen he was already teaching mathematics at a military school in Auxerre and he later applied to enter the artillery corp. He was, however, informed that such a profession was open only to those of noble blood and was closed to him ?even if he were a second Newton.? This was probably the reason why he readily became enamored with the French Revolution (1789-1799), considering it to be greatest and most beautiful cause any nation had undertaken.

Unfortunately, the Revolution soon became mired in problems of its own making: the collapse of the royal authority and the effects of revolutionary zeal coupled with political miscalculations created administrative chaos and drove France to war against most of Europe. …