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Thursday, 29 December 2016

Blaise Pascal


Blaise Pascal was born on June 19, 1623 in Clermont-Ferrand, which is in France's Auvergne region.

Blaise Pascal Versailles. By unknown; a copy of the painture of François II Quesnel, Wikipedia Commons

He lost his mother, Antoinette Begon, at the age of three.

His father, Étienne Pascal (1588–1651), was a local judge and member of the "Noblesse de Robe," who also had an interest in science and mathematics.

Blaise Pascal had one older sister Gilberte, and two younger sisters, only one of whom, Jacqueline, survived past childhood.

Beginning in 1631, his father, Étienne Pascal (1588-1651), devoted himself entirely to the education of his son, who showed extraordinary mental and intellectual abilities, occasionally taking him along to the Academy of Science meetings.


At the age of 16, Blaise Pascal produced a short treatise on what was called the "Mystic Hexagram", and sent it to Père Mersenne in Paris, which included some of the great mathematical thinkers of the time The hypothesis, which is known today as Pascal's theorem, states that if a hexagon is inscribed in a circle (or conic) then the three intersection points of opposite sides lie on a line (called the Pascal line).

In December 1639 the Pascal family left Paris to live in Rouen where Étienne had been appointed as a tax collector for Upper Normandy.

In 1641, while helping his father collect taxes in central France, young Pascal built a calculating machine, the Pascaline, operated by gears and wheels. Though it could only count, not multiply or divide and was not a commercial success, the Pascaline is considered a pioneering forerunner to the later development of mechanical methods of calculation, as well as the modern field of computer engineering.

Early Pascaline on display at the Musée des Arts et Métiers. By Rama, Wikipedia

In 1646, Pascal learned of Evangelista Torricelli's experimentation with barometers. The French scientist built an early form of a barometer, which instead of mercury, used red wine. As wine is less dense than mercury he had to build a tube 46 feet to accommodate the pressure rises and falls.

Pascal questioned what force kept some mercury in the tube and what filled the space above the mercury. Following more experimentation in this vein, in 1647 Pascal proved to his satisfaction that a vacuum existed above the column of liquid in a barometer tube.

The philosopher Rene Descartes visited Pascal on September 23, 1647. During his stay, the pair argued about the vacuum which Descartes did not believe in. Afterwards, Descartes wrote a letter to Huygens in which he said that Pascal"...has too much vacuum in his head."

On September 19, 1648, Florin Périer, husband of Pascal's sister Gilberte, carried out a famous demonstration of atmospheric pressure at the top of Puy-de-dome, the highest mountain in the vicinity of Clermont-Ferrand. Périer measured the height of the mercury column at the lowest elevation in town, where a reading of 711 mm was taken. The other instrument was carried about 1000 metre higher to the top of the mountain, where the height of the column had dropped to 627 mm.

Pascal replicated the experiment in Paris by carrying a barometer up to the top of the bell tower at the church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie, a height of about 50 metres. The mercury dropped about two lines. The fact-finding mission was vital to Pascal's theory concerning the cause of barometrical variations and paved the way for further studies in hydrodynamics and hydrostatics.

Pascal also paved the way for the invention of the hydraulic press by Joseph Bramah in 1795. The instrument was based upon the principle that became known as Pascal’s law which stated that the pressure in a fluid contained in a vessel remains the same in all directions regardless of the area to which the pressure is applied.

The Pascal, a SI unit of pressure, was named after Blaise Pascal in honor of his contributions to science in 1971. The Pascal is used to quantify internal pressure, stress. Young's modulus and ultimate tensile strength. It is defined as one newton per square meter.

Pascal made significant contributions to mathematics and published his Traité du triangle arithmétique ("Treatise on the Arithmetical Triangle") in 1653. The treatise described a convenient tabular presentation for binomial coefficients, an inverted pyramid of numbers in each was the sum of the two above it. This became known as the Pascal triangle.

Pascal's triangle

In 1654, Pascal was approached by a friend, an aggravated gambler called the Chevalier de Mere, who couldn't understand why he always lost when betting on the appearance of certain combinations in the fall of dice. Prompted by his friend, Pascal corresponded with the mathematician Pierre de Fermat on the subject of gambling problems. Their collaboration led to the development of the mathematical theory of probabilities, which helped de Mere calculate the odds on dice throws and win some money.

The important groundwork laid by Pascal and de Fermat proved to be instrumental in Gottfried Leibniz's formulation of calculus.

In 1661 Pascal proposed a public bus system in Paris and its suburbs. The eight seater coaches went into service the following year. They ran every eight minutes, but were not a success, finding it hard to negotiate the crowded medieval streets. The vehicles were also too small to arouse the public interest after an initial attraction. The company went into liquidation in 1676.

Roulette was invented by Pascal. It was a by-product of his experiments with perpetual motion.


In 1646, Pascal and his sister Jacqueline started identifying with the religious movement within Catholicism known by its detractors as Jansenism. Initiated by Cornelius Jansen, the former Bishop of Ypres, the Jansenism movement aimed at reforming the French Roman Catholic Church from within.

Portrait of Pascal

Pascal's interest in Jansenism was prompted by an incident one icy January day in 1646, when his father rushed out to prevent a duel from taking place. He slipped on the frozen ground, fell hard and dislocated his hip. Two devout Jansenists treated Étienne Pascal, curing him. As a result Blaise Pascal and his sister were drawn to the Scriptures and devoted many hours to the study of God's word.

In 1651 Étienne Pascal died and Jacqueline renounced the world by entering Port-Royal-des-Champs Abbey, a covent of Cistercian nuns in Magny-les-Hameaux, in the Vallée de Chevreuse. The abbeys and schools of Port-Royal were intimately associated with the Jansenist school of theology.

Despite living in a fine mansion and mixing with high society, Pascal was unhappy and unsatisfied. In desperation he turned to his Bible and in the late hours of November 23, 1654, after reading the 17th chapter of the Gospel of John he had a profound mystical vision.

After his conversion experience, Pascal inscribed his testimony on a piece of parchment which he sewed onto his coat. For eight years Pascal hid this story of his salvation sewing and unsewing as he had need. After he died a servant found it. The parchment in his jacket read:

"The year of Grace 1654, Monday Nov 23rd... from about half past ten in the evening until half past 12, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the Philosophers and Scholars. Certainty, feeling, joy and peace God of Jesus Christ... I have separated myself from him, I have fled from him, renounced him, crucified him, may I never be separated from him... renunciation total and sweet. "

Pascal used to drive around Paris in a magnificent four horse drawn coach. In 1654 he was involved in an accident at the Neuilly bridge where the horses plunged over the parapet but the carriage survived. This near death experience is thought to have influenced his conversion.

After his mystical experience, Pascal took refuge in the Jansenist Catholic Monastery of Port Royal under the influence of his sister.

On March 24, 1656, Pascal's 10-year-old niece, Marguerite Périer, was healed of a painful incurable eye affliction by a Jansenist. The healing made a great impression on the public and all Catholic Paris acclaimed a miracle. Pascal regarded the event as a sign of divine favor for the cause of Jansenism. It also confirmed his belief in miracles, a belief that would later be incorporated his great apologetic work the Pensées.

Marguerite Périer 


Blaise Pascal wrote Lettres Provincales under the pseudonym of Louis de Montalte –The first of the lettres was published on January 23, 1656.

Lettres Provincales is made up of 18 letters and pamphlets that were written in an ironic and humorous style in which he attempted to bring deep theological matters to the attention of the masses. In his 18-letter series Pascal criticized the Jesuits, promoted Jansenist teaching and put forward the argument that whilst true faith only belongs to the morally upright God's grace is sufficient for all. "There is a God shaped vacuum in every heart," he wrote.

The traditionally Catholic Louis XIV was incensed about this pro-Jansensist work. The French king ordered that the book be shredded and burnt in 1660.

In 1658 Blaise Pascal set out to prepare a defense of the Christian religion. It was unfinished at the time of his passing, but he left a series of notes which were discovered and were published in 1670 as Pensées. A classic of literature and apologetics, Pascal stated in Pensées that God could be known through Jesus Christ by an act of faith itself given by God.

Pensées contains 'Pascal's wager' which states the French polymath's that belief in God is rational by illustrating a friend waging on extinction after death. Pascal reasoned if he is wrong in his belief in eternal life he will never know but if his friend is wrong in his belief in extinction he will all too definitely know and will lose the opportunity of eternal happiness.
Second edition of Blaise Pascal's Pensées, 1670


Pascal had poor health, especially after the age of 18, and by the 1650s he was becoming ill from overwork.

In June 1662, Pascal was seized with a violent illness, probably stomach cancer, and after two months of agony, he realized he didn't have much longer to live and requested he could die with the poor in the hospital for incurables. His last words were "My God, Forsake me not.”

Pascal died on August 19, 1662 just two months after his 39th birthday. He was buried in the cemetery of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont.

Pascal's epitaph in Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, where he was buried

In 1972 a biopic titled Blaise Pascal was shown on French TV, The seemingly uninspired director Roberto Rossellini said it was about, "A very boring man."

Sources Sunday Telegraph,, Church History in Plain Language by Bruce L Shelley

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