Beyond being the first substantial publication on Fourier, this work contains the text of Fourier's seminal paper of 1807 on the propagation of heat, marking the first time it has ever appeared in print. This paper incorporates many of the mathematical creations on which Fourier's fame rests, including derivation of the diffusion equation, the separation of the treatment of surface phenomena from internal phenomena, the use of boundary values and initial conditions, and the development of "Fourier series" and the so-called "Bessel functions."
When submitted to the examiners of the Institut de France, the originality of the paper and the surprising nature of some of its mathematical revelations caused great controversy, and it was denied publication both in 1807 and in later years. Fourier had the support, among the examiners, of Laplace and Monge, but Lagrange was adamantly in opposition, so that Fourier's work did not appear in print until 1822, reworked into book form.
Fourier's mathematical discoveries are intimately related to his interest in the solution of physical problems and their experimental verification. The mathematical methods he developed in connection with heat diffusion apply to physical situations far beyond the boundaries of this area. Generally, Fourier may be credited with one of the first major extensions of mathematical physics beyond the applications of Newton's laws of motion and universal gravitation.
The opening biographical chapter of this book follows Fourier's career up to the submission of the 1807 paper, and the two closing chapters take up his life and work from that point on. Fourier had strong political motivations and spent much of his life in the public service. These chapters trace his political difficulties, both before and after 1807, when he was the prefect of a department of France and was subjected to the dislocations of Napoleon's ups and downs. These chapters also describe aspects of the turbulent but productive development of French science from the Revolution to 1830.
The core of the book presents the paper of 1807 in its original French and with the original notation. Grattan-Guinness has divided the paper into sections by the sequence of the problems taken up, and he introduces and, where necessary, closes each section with commentary relevant to Fourier's later work in these areas. The paper itself follows the chronology of Fourier's discoveries, and among the topics treated are, in this order: heat diffusion between disjoint bodies and in continuous bodies; the appearance of partial differential equations; the special solution for the lamina; sine and cosine series for an arbitrary function; reflections on the vibrating string problem; solution for the annulus; the full Fourier series for an arbitrary function; reflections on n-body analysis; solution for the sphere; solution for the cylinder; steady-state diffusion in the rectangular prism; time-dependent diffusion in the cube; and Fourier's experimental work.