Mathematics is a dynasty. One that spans centuries and is intrinsically tied to our wider histories. But we often only receive fragments of these larger stories. Bits and pieces passed on by other mathematicians who, in turn, received it as fragments themselves. This is what I love about mathematics. And so, I’d love to join the game and share one of the most memorable fragments from my research: A little bit of the life – and death- of Fourier.
Mathematics is primarily taught as a set of techniques and ideas. Perhaps also as a mindset. But Mathematics is also a history. A dynasty that spans centuries upon centuries and is intrinsically – though often non-obviously – tied to our wider histories. In classes and research, we pick up fragments of this story. They are passed to us by people who also picked it up as a fragment in their research or classes. In this way, Mathematics has a certain pseudo-oral-history-tradition – which is supported by personal interest through the occasional historian or textbook.
This is one of the things I love most about mathematics. The thought that, somehow, I get to stand on the shoulders of giants, and see not only further ahead, but a little bit behind as well. Having, then, been given a platform to share either my research or why I became interested in Mathematics, what could be more appropriate to give, than my favourite fragment of history from my summer research? A little bit of the life of renowned Mathematician, Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier.
Born in Auxerre, France, in 1768, Fourier was orphaned at the age of just 8 and grew up in a military school run by the religious order of the Benedictines. As a young man, when he wasn’t studying into the late hours of the night or bedbound by sickness, he was becoming increasingly political. He became closely involved with the French revolution, to the extent that he was personally known to Napoleon. They probably came to know one another during Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, for which he was recruited as part of the academic staff. This was to both make and break his career. Napoleon personally appointed Fourier to various positions – notably, a prefecture in Grenoble – but also saw him exiled several times after their relationship soured.
While he was in Egypt, Fourier became enamoured with the idea that desert heat was the ideal environment for human life. This began a life-long fixation with heat that resulted in the formation of work for which he is still known today. When he was appointed to his position in Grenoble, he had the time and resources to begin his work on heat transfer. However, Grenoble was cold and damp; A long way from his ‘ideal conditions’. As a result, Fourier was known to clothe himself in too many layers and live and work in rooms of unbearable heat.
Now comes my fragment. The piece of history I want to pass on. Heat was both the making and the undoing of Fourier. “It has been said by some that this obsession with heat hastened his death, by heart disease, so that he died, thoroughly cooked, in his sixty third year.”
The University of Newcastle