If you've spent any time on the Internet, at some point you've heard the phrase "Fourier transform." It's it's a mathematical discovery that's baked into everything from MP3s to quantum physics. Once you understand it, the world is your oyster. Luckily, Aatish Bhatia has a terrific article in Nautilus that will explain it all to you.

Bhatia begins:

Nine years 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, X-ray crystallography, voice recognition, and PET or MRI scans. This mathematical toolâ€”named the Fourier transform, after 18th-century French physicist and mathematician Joseph Fourierâ€”was even used by James Watson and Francis Crick to decode the double helix structure of DNA from the X-ray patterns produced by Rosalind Franklin . . .

So what was Fourier's discovery, and why is it useful? Imagine playing a note on a piano. When you press the piano key, a hammer strikes a string that vibrates to and fro at a certain fixed rate (440 times a second for the A note). As the string vibrates, the air molecules around it bounce to and fro, creating a wave of jiggling air molecules that we call sound. If you could watch the air carry out this periodic dance, you'd discover a smooth, undulating, endlessly repeating curve that's called a sinusoid, or a sine wave. (Clarification: In the example of the piano key, there will really be more than one sine wave produced. The richness of a real piano note comes from the many softer overtones that are produced in addition to the primary sine wave. A piano note can beapproximated as a sine wave, but a tuning fork is a more apt example of a sound that is well-approximated by a single sinusoid.)

Now, instead of single key, say you play three keys together to make a chord. The resulting sound wave isn't as prettyâ€”it looks like a complicated mess. But hidden in that messy sound wave is a simple pattern. After all, the chord was just three keys struck together, and so the messy sound wave that results is really just the sum of three notes (or sine waves).

Christine Daniloff/MIT

Fourier's insight was that this isn't just a special property of musical chords, but applies more generally to any kind of repeating wave, be it square, round, squiggly, triangular, whatever. The Fourier transform is like a mathematical prismâ€”you feed in a wave and it spits out the ingredients of that waveâ€”the notes (or sine waves) that when added together will reconstruct the wave.

And that's just the beginning. Once you understand this, you'll learn how compression algorithms work to store your music in a very tiny file â€“ and you'll learn a lot more, too. Read more over on Nautilus.