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Augustin-Jean Fresnel

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Augustin-Jean Fresnel /freɪˈnɛl/ fray-NEL; French: ɔɡystɛ̃ ʒɑ̃ fʁɛnɛl; 10 May 1788 – 14 July 1827, was a French engineer and physicist who contributed significantly to the establishment of the theory of wave optics Fresnel studied the behaviour of light both theoretically and experimentally

He is perhaps best known as the inventor of the Fresnel lens, first adopted in lighthouses while he was a French commissioner of lighthouses, and found in many applications today His Fresnel equations on waves and reflectivity also form the basis for many applications in computer graphics today — for instance, the rendering of water


  • 1 Personal life and education
  • 2 Career
  • 3 Polarized light research
  • 4 References
  • 5 External links

Personal life and educationedit

Fresnel was the son of an architect, born at Broglie in present-day Eure He received a rigorous Catholic upbringing from his parents, who were involved in the Jansenist movement1 His early progress in learning was slow, and he still could not read when he was eight years old At thirteen he entered the École Centrale in Caen, and at sixteen and a half the École Polytechnique, where he acquitted himself with distinction From there he went to the École des Ponts et Chaussées

He received only scant public recognition during his lifetime for his labours in the cause of optical science Some of his papers were not printed by the Académie des Sciences until many years after his death But as he wrote to Young in 1824: in himself "that sensibility, or that vanity, which people call love of glory" had been blunted "All the compliments," he says, "that I have received from Arago, Laplace and Biot never gave me so much pleasure as the discovery of a theoretic truth, or the confirmation of a calculation by experiment"2

Fresnel has been described as a man with interest in religious questions and deep faith in God345 As a form of consolation, he took religion very seriously especially during his illness67

He spent much of his life in Paris, and died of tuberculosis at Ville-d'Avray, near Paris2 His is one of the 72 names inscribed on the Eiffel Tower The writer Prosper Mérimée 1803-1870 was his first cousin


Bust of Augustin Fresnel by David d'Angers First-order lighthouse Fresnel lens, on display at the Point Arena Lighthouse Museum, Point Arena Lighthouse, Mendocino County, California

He served as an engineer successively in the departments of Vendée, Drôme and Ille-et-Vilaine; but having supported the Bourbons in 1814 he lost his appointment on Napoleon's return to power2 He appears to have begun his research in optics around 1814, when he prepared a paper on the aberration of light, although it was never published In 1815, on the second restoration of the monarchy, he obtained a post as engineer in Paris

In 1818 he wrote a memoir on diffraction, for which he received the prize of the Académie des Sciences at Paris the following year He was the first to construct a special type of lens, now called a Fresnel lens, as a substitute for mirrors in lighthouses In 1819, he was nominated to be a commissioner of lighthouses In 1823 he was unanimously elected a member of the academy In 1825 he became a Fellow of the Royal Society of London In 1827, the time of his last illness, the Royal Society of London awarded him the Rumford Medal2

In 1818 he published his Memoir on the Diffraction of Light, submitted to the Academe of science in 18188 His discoveries and mathematical deductions, building on experimental work by Thomas Young, extended the wave theory of light to a large class of optical phenomena, especially, to the double-refraction property of Iceland Spar, or calcite9

In 1817, Young had proposed a small transverse component to light, while yet retaining a far larger longitudinal component Fresnel, by the year 1821, was able to show by mathematical methods that polarization could be explained only if light was entirely transverse, with no longitudinal vibration whatsoever10 He proposed the aether drag hypothesis to explain a lack of variation in astronomical observations His use of two plane mirrors of metal, forming with each other an angle of nearly 180°, allowed him to avoid the diffraction effects caused by the apertures in the experiment of F M Grimaldi on interference This allowed him to conclusively account for the phenomenon of interference in accordance with the wave theorycitation needed

Polarized light researchedit

A diagram of a Fresnel rhomb blue Incoming light, if linearly polarized at 45° with respect to the plane of incidence along the page has the relative phase of its s and p polarization components altered at two reflections, outputting a circularly polarized beam

With François Arago he studied the laws of the interference of polarized rays He obtained circularly polarized light by means of a rhombus of glass, known as a Fresnel rhomb, having obtuse angles of 126° and acute angles of 54° The Fresnel–Arago laws are three laws which summarise some of the more important properties of interference between light of different states of polarization The laws are as follows:11

  • Two orthogonal, coherent linearly polarized waves cannot interfere
  • Two parallel coherent linearly polarized waves will interfere in the same way as natural light
  • The two constituent orthogonal linearly polarized states of natural light cannot interfere to form a readily observable interference pattern, even if rotated into alignment because they are incoherent

The Fresnel equations describe the behaviour of light when moving between media of differing refractive indices When light moves from a medium of a given refractive index n1 into a second medium with refractive index n2, both reflection and refraction of the light may occur

The Fresnel diffraction equation is an approximation of Kirchhoff-Fresnel diffraction that can be applied to the propagation of waves in the near field12 It is used to calculate the diffraction pattern created by waves passing through an aperture or around an object, when viewed from relatively close to the object In contrast the diffraction pattern in the far field region is given by the Fraunhofer diffraction equation


  1. ^ "July 1816: Fresnel’s Evidence for the Wave Theory of Light" American Physical Society Retrieved 8 May 2017 
  2. ^ a b c d Chisholm 1911
  3. ^ Graves, Dan 1996 Scientists of Faith: Forty-eight Biographies of Historic Scientists and Their Christian Faith Kregel Publications pp 102-103
  4. ^ Varadaraja Raman 2005 Variety in Religion and Science: Daily Reflections iUniverse p 390
  5. ^ Kneller, Karl Alois 1911 Christianity and the leaders of modern science; a contribution to the history of culture in the nineteenth century" "The Theory of Light" pp 147-148
  6. ^ Fresnel, Augustin Jean Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography | 2008 |
  7. ^ Charles George Herbermann 1913 The Catholic Encyclopedia: An International Work of Reference on the Constitution, Doctrine, Discipline, and History of the Catholic Church, Volume 6 Universal Knowledge Foundation p 280
  8. ^ Fresnel, Augustin 1819 "Memoir on the Diffraction of Light" The Wave Theory of Light – Memoirs by Huygens, Young and Fresnel American Book Company pp 79–145 
  9. ^ Whittaker, E T, A History of the Theories of Aether and Electricity Dublin University Press, 1910
  10. ^ Fresnel, Augustin 1819 "On the Action of Rays of Polarized Light upon Each Other" The Wave Theory of Light – Memoirs by Huygens, Young and Fresnel American Book Company pp 145–56 
  11. ^ W, Weisstein, Eric "Fresnel-Arago Laws -- from Eric Weisstein's World of Physics" scienceworldwolframcom 
  12. ^ M Born & E Wolf, Principles of Optics, 1999, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

External linksedit

  • Quotations related to Augustin-Jean Fresnel at Wikiquote
  • Works by Augustin-Jean Fresnel at Open Library

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