How to Count to Infinity (or “Yes, Virginia, some infinities are bigger than others…”)
As we check in to Hilbert’s Hotel, we might spare a thought for Joesph Fourier; the French mathematician, physicist, Egyptologist and administrator who died on this date in 1830. Fourier introduced Jean-Francois Champollion to the Rosetta Stone, which Champollion subsequently decoded/translated. And after calculating that a body the size of earth, at earth’s distance form the sun, should be cooler than our world is, discovered what we now call “the greenhouse effect.” But Fourier is best remembered for his contributions to mathematical physics through his Théorie analytique de la chaleur (1822; The Analytical Theory of Heat), which introduced an infinite mathematical series to aid in solving conduction equations. (The technique allowed the function of any variable to be expanded into a series of sines of multiples of the variable– now known as “the fourier series.”)
True greatness is when your name is like ampere, watt, and fourier—when it’s spelled with a lower case letter.
- Richard Hamming (in a 1986 Bell Labs Colloquium)