Saturday, July 21, 2007


When I was a youth at high school in Grafton, I disliked the concept of so-called prefects. They were a group of elected senior students charged with minimal duties such as making sure that pupils marched into their classrooms in straight lines. The thing I disliked about the prefects concept was that most of us got elected to this silly position, which meant that the few outsiders who weren't sufficiently popular to be chosen as prefects were automatically looked upon as social outcasts. I think, for example, of my classmate Tom Mogan, whose father was the governor of Grafton's notorious jail. Tom was a quiet introspective individual. I got to know him a little through the fact that we were among the few members of a Latin class run by a great teacher named Robert Sinclair [with whom I met up a year ago, when I was out in Sydney]. Tom was not the sort of person who would get elected as a prefect, because he didn't seem to be concerned with all the trivial aspects of school life [such as sport, for example] that provide a context for becoming a popular student. I learned recently that Tom became a Catholic priest, and spent the final years of his life working with destitute Aborigines over in Western Australia.

Here in France, the term préfet [prefect, from the Latin praefectus] is a Napoleonic title bestowed upon individuals who are placed in charge of a region or a département. French prefects are distinguished individuals who have generally been educated in the finest schools of France. Their job consists of representing the authorities of the French republic at a tangible local level, a little like the role of a governor in an imperial colony. It's a fact that French prefects wear exotic old-fashioned military-style uniforms that give them a very serious look. Although their role appears at times to be largely honorific, the work of a French prefect can be difficult and hazardous in certain situations, particularly in the case of local catastrophes, when they have the personal responsibility of managing events. In a nutshell, if something goes hugely wrong [such as a local officially-approved garbage-disposal facility giving out lethal fumes, for example], the entire blame can fall upon the poor prefect.

Funnily enough, soon after my arrival here in the Dauphiné, I discovered that the Isère prefect was a second cousin of my ex-wife, and that the prefect of a neighboring département was a fellow I used to know back at the Lycée Henri IV in Paris, when I was an English assistant. In both cases, these former acquaintances had risen to such a superior social status that it was quite out of the question—if ever I had wished to do so—of simply dropping in on them to say hello. [There might be some kind of Shakespearean philosophical implication in that last statement, but I don't know what it is.]

Talking of French prefects, one of the very first fellows to get such a job, here in the Isère département where I live, was a certain Joseph Fourier. From a modest background, this scientist caught the attention of Napoléon within the context of the Emperor's exploratory mission in Egypt. Then, in 1801, Napoléon put him in charge of the tumultuous region around Grenoble in which the flames of the French Revolution had been kindled just fourteen years previously, at the castle of Vizille. At that time, a Grenoble librarian named Jacques-Joseph Champollion [who did a lot of work in cataloging the confiscated library of the Chartreux monks] succeeded in becoming a close acquaintance of the prefect Fourier. This Champollion fellow had a young brother who went on to crack the code of Egyptian hieroglyphics... but that's another fabulous story, to which I shall certainly return, one of these days, in my blog. Getting back to Fourier, I would suppose that he led a rather hectic life, representing the authorities of the newly-created French Republic in the headstrong Alpine city of Grenoble. We might imagine that this arduous and no doubt messy administrative job left the young prefect [33 years old when he arrived in Grenoble] little time for personal activities.

Well, that was not quite the case. The prefect of whom I am talking was of course none other than the celebrated mathematician Joseph Fourier, whose work still remains the daily sustenance of scientists all over the planet. At Sydney University, I was brought up on a basic mathematical diet of Fourier series. Soon, I learned to manipulate the famous Fourier transform, which might be described superficially as a mathematical method for investigating all kinds of marvelous phenomena. For example, back in the early '70s, when I became interested in the themes of music and machines, in an article by a certain James Beauchamp [University of Illinois], I came upon the following exciting assertion: We may now be at the threshold of the discovery of mathematical descriptions for beautiful tones, as they are commonly termed in conventional music. The rest of the article might be described as a celebration of the power of the Fourier transform, executed on a computer, as a means of putting some order into audio data. In his prefectoral offices in Grenoble, Fourier actually carried out physics experiments concerning the propagation of heat that resulted in his formulation of a theory of thermodynamics.

Since the epoch of the prefect Fourier, the world has heard of the clerk named Einstein in a patents office who invented the theory of relativity. Today, we still have cases of extraordinary individuals who exploit their time in mundane jobs to invent marvelous theories [more about that later on]. Meanwhile, a silly speculation: If Joseph Fourier had been a student in my high school in Grafton, like my quiet mate Tom Mogan, would he have been popular enough to get elected as a prefect? Yes, certainly, for one of Fourier's major gifts was his eloquence. The Champollion brothers gave him a nickname, Chrysostom, recalling the illustrious 4th-century Greek saint whose name evokes his legendary golden mouth.

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