
The Math Trick Behind MP3s, JPEGs, and Homer Simpson’s Face
Over a decade ago, I was sitting in a college math physics course and my professor spelt out an idea that kind of blew my mind. I think it isn’t a stretch to say that this is one of the most widely applicable mathematical discoveries, with applications ranging from optics to quantum physics, radio astronomy, MP3 and JPEG compression, Xray crystallography, voice recognition, and PET or MRI scans. This mathematical tool—named the Fourier transform, after 18thcentury French physicist and mathematician Joseph Fourier—was even used by James Watson and Francis Crick to decode the double helix structure of DNA from the Xray patterns produced by Rosalind Franklin. (Crick was an expert in Fourier transforms, and joked about writing a paper called, “Fourier Transforms for birdwatchers,” to explain the math to Watson, an avid birder.) You probably use a descendant of Fourier’s idea every day, whether you’re playing an MP3, viewing an image on the web, asking Siri a question, or tuning in to a radio station. (Fourier, by the way, was no slacker. In addition to his work in theoretical physics and math, he was also the first to discover the greenhouse effect.) So what was Fourier’s discovery, and…Read More…
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