Fourier’s heat conduction equation: History, influence, and connections
The equation describing the conduction of heat in solids has, over the past two centuries, proved to be a powerful tool for analyzing the dynamic motion of heat as well as for solving an enormous array of diffusion-type problems in physical sciences, biological sciences, earth sciences, and social sciences. This equation was formulated at the beginning of the nineteenth century by one of the most gifted scholars of modern science, Joseph Fourier of France. A study of the historical context in which Fourier made his remarkable contribution and the subsequent impact his work has had on the development of modern science is as fascinating as it is educational. This paper is an attempt to present a picture of how certain ideas initially led to Fourier’s development of the heat equation and how, subsequently, Fourier’s work directly influenced and inspired others to use the heat diffusion model to describe other dynamic physical systems. Conversely, others concerned with the study of random processes found that the equations governing such random processes reduced, in the limit, to Fourier’s equation of heat diffusion. In the process of developing the flow of ideas, the paper also presents, to the extent possible, an account of the history and personalities involved.