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Blaise Pascal

Blaise Pascal Photo

Blaise Pascal was born on 19th June 1623 in Clermont-Ferrand, France. Pascal’s mother died very early on in his life and his father chose not to remarry. His father, Antoinette Begon was a tax collector and a gifted mathematician. Antoinette was extremely devoted to his three children and taught them himself in order to encourage their academic pursuits in life. Pascal was a child prodigy with a passion for mathematics and science from a very early age. Proud of his sons love for math, Antoinette started taking Pascal to meetings at the mathematics academy in Paris.

By the tender age of just 16, Pascal started presenting his own theorems to great mathematicians like Marin Mersenne, Pierre Gassendi, and Clyde Mydorge. At one such meeting in 1642, Pascal presented his “mystical hexagon”. In the meantime, Pascal also started developing the world’s first mechanical calculator, capable of calculating lengthy additions and subtractions in a matter of minutes as opposed to his father who spent hours calculating and recalculating taxes owed and paid. This device was called Pascal’s calculator or the Pascaline.

Later Years

Even in later years, the Pascalines kept him busy since he found a few disruptive discrepancies between the calculator and the structure of the French currency of that time. Although he made a number of improvements to the original, Pascalines never gained commercial success due to its high cost.

In the 1640s, Pascal found out about Evangelista Torricelli’s barometer experiments. This encouraged Pascal as well to experiment how atmospheric pressure could be projected in terms of weight. The results he derived from his own experiments made him validate Torricelli’s theory of barometrical variations and started a trend in the study of hydrodynamics and hydrostatics.

During this time, Pascal went on to invent the syringe and the hydraulic press. These instruments were based on his famous “Pascal’s law” which showed that if pressure was applied to confined liquid it can be dispersed as it is through that liquid in all directions regardless of the area to which the pressure is applied. Apart from these inventions, he went on to make considerable contributions in mathematics with his ‘Traité du triangle arithmétique’ (“Treatise on the Arithmetical Triangle”).

In 1654, his correspondence with the renowned mathematician Pierre de Fermat on the complexities of gambling resulted in the development of the mathematical theory of probabilities and the idea of expected value. Together they laid the groundwork for Leibniz’s formulation of the calculus.

But in 1654, Pascal had a profound religious experience due to which he gave up his work in mathematics and diligently started working on religious matters. Between 1656 to 1657, under the pseudonym Louis de Montalte, he wrote and published an 18-letter series attacking the ethical methods of Catholic thinkers of that time. This enraged King Louis XIV to the point that he had Pascal’s work shredded and burnt in 1660.

Personal Life & Legacy

Pascal had always been delicate of health and suffered countless health issues throughout his short life. On 19th August 1662, Pascal passed away. His death was probably the result of complications due to tuberculosis and stomach cancer. Near the time of his death, Pascal had been writing an apology on Christianity which was left unfinished due to his early death at the age of just 39. However, fragments of this work were later collected and published posthumously as ‘The Pensées’ which today is considered a masterpiece.

In the 1970s, to honor this genius the Pascal (Pa) unit, an SI unit of pressure, was named after him.  The computer programming language, Pascal, is also in memory of Blaise Pascal.

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