Who was Blaise Pascal?
Blaise Pascal was a French Christian, philosopher, mathematician, physicist, inventor, and writer. He was born in 1623 and died in 1662.
Pascal's earliest work was in the natural and applied sciences where he made important contributions to the study of fluids, and clarified the concepts of pressure and vacuum by generalizing the work of Evangelista Torricelli. Pascal also wrote in defense of the scientific method.
In 1642, while still a teenager, he started some pioneering work on calculating machines. After three years of effort and fifty prototypes, he invented the mechanical calculator. He built 20 of these machines (called pascal's calculator and later pascaline) in the following ten years.
Pascal was an important mathematician, helping create two major new areas of research: he wrote a significant treatise on the subject of projective geometry at the age of 16, and later corresponded with Pierre de Fermat on probability theory, strongly influencing the development of modern economics and social science. Following Galileo and Torricelli, in 1646 he refuted Aristotle's followers who insisted that nature abhors a vacuum. Pascal's results caused many disputes before being accepted.
In 1646, he and his sister Jacqueline identified with the religious movement within Catholicism known by its detractors as Jansenism. His father died in 1651. Following a mystical experience in late 1654, he had his "second conversion", abandoned his scientific work, and devoted himself to philosophy and theology.
His two most famous works date from this period: the Lettres provinciales and the Pensées, the former set in the conflict between Jansenists and Jesuits. In this year, he also wrote an important treatise on the arithmetical triangle. Between 1658 and 1659 he wrote on the cycloid and its use in calculating the volume of solids.
Pascal had poor health especially after his 18th year and his death came just two months after his 39th birthday.
Contributions to mathematics
Pascal's triangle. Each number is the sum of the two directly above it. The triangle demonstrates many mathematical properties in addition to showing binomial coefficients.
Pascal continued to influence mathematics throughout his life. His Traité du triangle arithmétique ("Treatise on the Arithmetical Triangle") of 1653 described a convenient tabular presentation for binomial coefficients, now called Pascal's triangle. The triangle can also be represented:
0 1 2 3 4 5 6
0 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
1 1 2 3 4 5 6
2 1 3 6 10 15
3 1 4 10 20
4 1 5 15
5 1 6
He defines the numbers in the triangle by recursion: Call the number in the (m+1)st row and (n+1)st column tmn. Then tmn = tm-1,n + tm,n-1, for m = 0, 1, 2... and n = 0, 1, 2... The boundary conditions are tm, −1 = 0, t−1, n for m = 1, 2, 3... and n = 1, 2, 3... The generator t00 = 1. Pascal concludes with the proof,
In 1654, prompted by a friend interested in gambling problems, he corresponded with Fermat on the subject, and from that collaboration was born the mathematical theory of probabilities. The friend was the Chevalier de Méré, and the specific problem was that of two players who want to finish a game early and, given the current circumstances of the game, want to divide the stakes fairly, based on the chance each has of winning the game from that point.
From this discussion, the notion of expected value was introduced. Pascal later (in the Pensées) used a probabilistic argument, Pascal's Wager, to justify belief in God and a virtuous life. The work done by Fermat and Pascal into the calculus of probabilities laid important groundwork for Leibniz' formulation of the infinitesimal calculus.
After a religious experience in 1654, Pascal mostly gave up work in mathematics.
For after all what is man in nature? A nothing in relation to infinity, all in relation to nothing, a central point between nothing and all and infinitely far from understanding either. The ends of things and their beginnings are impregnably concealed from him in an impenetrable secret. He is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness out of which he was drawn and the infinite in which he is engulfed.Religious conversion
In the winter of 1646, Pascal's 58 year-old father broke his hip when he slipped and fell on an icy street of Rouen; given the man's age and the state of medicine in the 17th century, a broken hip could be a very serious condition, perhaps even fatal. Rouen was home to two of the finest doctors in France: Monsieur Doctor Deslandes and Monsieur Doctor de La Bouteillerie. The elder Pascal "would not let anyone other than these men attend him...It was a good choice, for the old man survived and was able to walk again..."
But treatment and rehabilitation took three months, during which time La Bouteillerie and Deslandes had become household guests. Both men were followers of Jean Guillebert, proponent of a splinter group from the main body of Catholic teaching known as Jansenism. This still fairly small sect was making surprising inroads into the French Catholic community at that time.
It espoused rigorous Augustinism. Blaise spoke with the doctors frequently, and upon his successful treatment of Étienne, borrowed works by Jansenist authors from them. In this period, Pascal experienced a sort of "first conversion" and began to write on theological subjects in the course of the following year.
Pascal fell away from this initial religious engagement and experienced a few years of what some biographers have called his "worldly period" (1648–54). His father died in 1651 and left his inheritance to Pascal and Jacqueline, of which Pascal acted as her conservator. Jacqueline announced that she would soon become a postulant in the Jansenist convent of Port-Royal. Pascal was deeply affected and very sad, not because of her choice, but because of his chronic poor health; he too needed her.
By the end of October in 1651, a truce had been reached between brother and sister. In return for a healthy annual stipend, Jacqueline signed over her part of the inheritance to her brother. Gilberte had already been given her inheritance in the form of a dowry.
In early January, Jacqueline left for Port-Royal. On that day, according to Gilberte concerning her brother, "He retired very sadly to his rooms without seeing Jacqueline, who was waiting in the little parlor..." In early June 1653, after what must have seemed like endless badgering from Jacqueline, Pascal formally signed over the whole of his sister's inheritance to Port-Royal, which, to him, "had begun to smell like a cult." With two-thirds of his father's estate now gone, the 29 year old Pascal was now consigned to genteel poverty.
For a while, Pascal pursued the life of a bachelor. During visits to his sister at Port-Royal in 1654, he displayed contempt for affairs of the world but was not drawn to God.The Pensées
Pascal's most influential theological work, referred to posthumously as the Pensées ("Thoughts"), was not completed before his death. It was to have been a sustained and coherent examination and defense of the Christian faith, with the original title Apologie de la religion Chrétienne ("Defense of the Christian Religion").
The first version of the numerous scraps of paper found after his death appeared in print as a book in 1669 titled Pensées de M. Pascal sur la religion, et sur quelques autres sujets ("Thoughts of M. Pascal on religion, and on some other subjects") and soon thereafter became a classic.
One of the Apologie's main strategies was to use the contradictory philosophies of skepticism and stoicism, personalized by Montaigne on one hand, and Epictetus on the other, in order to bring the unbeliever to such despair and confusion that he would embrace God.
Pascal's Pensées is widely considered to be a masterpiece, and a landmark in French prose. When commenting on one particular section (Thought #72), Sainte-Beuve praised it as the finest pages in the French language. Will Durant hailed it as "the most eloquent book in French prose." In Pensées, Pascal surveys several philosophical paradoxes: infinity and nothing, faith and reason, soul and matter, death and life, meaning and vanity—seemingly arriving at no definitive conclusions besides humility, ignorance, and grace. Rolling these into one he develops Pascal's Wager.
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