Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) had a rather unorthodox childhood. When Pascal's mother died in his infancy, Pascal's father Étienne moved Pascal and his sisters to Paris where he undertook to teach the young Pascal himself. For reason of his own, Étienne decided that Pascal was not to study mathematics prior to the age of fifteen. Pascal, an understandly curious adolescent about this restriction, started working on geometry himself at the age of twelve. Thereafter, it was impossible to restrain Pascal any longer and his father gave in when Pascal disocvered the sum of the angles of a triangle are two right angles.
At the age of fourteen, Pascal started to attend Mersenne's meetings. Mersenne belonged to the religious order of the Minims, and his cell in Paris was a frequent meeting place for Fermat, Pascal, Gassendi, and others. By the age of sixteen, Pascal had written his Treatise on Conic Sections, which included his famous theorem of hexagons (Pascal's Theorem), and presented it to Mersenne. Already the young Pascal was on equal footing with some of the great scientific minds of his day.
The company of Mersenne may have been Pascal's first introduction to the idea of sprituality but it was not to be his last. Sometime during his father's stay in Normandy as a high official in the government, Étienne sustained an injury which resulted in him being provided with care by a local order of Jansenite priests. It was through this family involvement with the priests that Pascal acquired a strong interest in religion, which was to last until his death. As a result of his forays into the realm of spirituality, he wrote many religious works.
Perhaps the most famous of these religious works is Pensées, a collection of personal thoughts on human suffering and faith in God. "Pascal's wager" claims to prove that belief in God is rational with the following argument:"If God does not exist, one will lose nothing by believing in him, while if he does exist, one will lose everything by not believing."
Later in his life, additional studies in geometry, hydrodynamics, and hydrostatic and atmospheric pressure led him to invent the syringe and hydraulic press, and to discover Pascal's law of pressure.
He worked on conic sections and produced important theorems in projective geometry. In correspondence with Fermat, he helped lay the foundation for the theory of probability. Finally, his last work was on the cycloid, the curve traced by a point on the circumference of a rolling circle.
Computers: From the Past to the Present
Blaise Pascal: Last modified July 30, 2006
©1994-2006 by Michelle A. Hoyle