If you ever been in a casino and played a roulette wheel, you placed a gamble on an instrument that has origins with the mathematician Blaise Pascal.
Blaise Pascal was born on June 19, 1623 in Clermont-Ferrand, France. He was the third of three children for Etienne and Antoinette Pascal. For young Blaise, his childhood would be denied the presence of a mother as Antoinette Pascal passed away from his life when he was only three years old. That meant that the boy’s female contacts for needed love came from that of his sisters, Jacqueline and Gilberte.
To understand a bit about Blaise is to know a little about his father, Etienne. The elder Pascal came from a position of being well to do financially. However, Etienne was not one to settle on the family fortune to make his way. Being a man of ambition, he served as tax assessor and eventually became the head, or president, of a division of the Cour de Aides. This was the aspect of French government which handled taxation courts throughout France.
In young Blaise’s day, church and state government were not divided one from the other. At the time when his father was handling the tax court in Clermont; France saw a Secretary of State come on the scene in that of Cardinal Richelieu. The Cardinal was appointed to this position by a rather young King, named Louis XIII. Etienne would be appointed by Cardinal Richelieu to deal with the mathematical practicality for determining whether the motion of the moon could pinpoint longitudinal positions.
After the passing of his wife in 1626, Etienne managed to hire a governess for the three children. Although she was hired to handle the teaching of the young Pascals; Etienne did not preclude himself from being involved himself. He was inclined to present his own interests of poetry, languages and Greek literature into their curriculum. For whatever reason, the elder Pascal did not want his son to be deeply equated with learning mathematics at a young age. His concern was that Blaise’s growing in interest with this subject would interfere with his studying other academics, such as literature and the classics.
By 1632, Etienne moved his family from the childhood home of Clermont to the larger city of Paris. Because of his growing involvement in the state government, Etienne needed to have his family closer to the center of French politics. To ensure that the young son was not embroiled in the one focused pursuit of mathematic, Etienne made sure all books on the subject were removed from the home.
However, Blaise Pascal was a diligent student and was not going to be dissuade from following his growing love of math. In fact, Blaise came to understand the geometric rule of how right angles and triangles worked. This was done under his own curious mind and not presented to him by the governess or his father. Instead of being angry, Etienne relented to his son’s passion for math and gave him a book by Euclid (considered the Father of geometry).
Education and Discoveries
Unlike many young boys of his day, involved in play and sports; and the fact that young Pascal was not of great health,he increased in his love the pursuit of mathematics. Blaise Pascal’s father was involved in attending meetings of the Messene. The Mersenne was a religious part of the Minims and the Paris organization entertained notables of the day, such as Desargues, Roberval and Gassendi. All of these were names known to the world of math and geometry.
Blaise Pascal began attending these meetings with his father when he was 14 years of age. Attending these meetings brought young Pascal into direct contact with the vary men that helped order his steps in learning and appreciating geometry. At the age of 16, Blaise Pascal wrote an essay that detailed his view on conic sections. Basically, his paper held that any random 6 points on a conic, when connected by linear lines would create a multitude of hexagrams. For someone of his age to independently write such a work was considered phenomenal in his day.
His conic work, which became a book, Essay on Conics, showcased a mind that could see the world of geometrics and establish theorems that are used today. The works of Apollonius were a heavy factor in the development of this publication. Through his theorems, Blaise Pascal was astounding the world by mere fact of his young age of 16.
During this period of time, The Pascal family once again lifted roots and settled in Rouen. Etienne had been so successful in his position in Paris, that the government made his head tax collector in the Upper Normandy region. While living here Pascal continued his work and dabbled in inventions. At the age of 18, Blaise helped his father’s work in collecting taxes by creating a machine that handled arithmetic.
Over the next few years the machine was improved and became a precursor to the modern digital calculator. One problem that Pascal faced with his early machine was the way currency in France worked. Since his machine worked better with quantities of 100’s, the French money as based on 12’s. However, in time, Blaise Pascal solved the issue accordingly. Although a mechanical counting machine had been created in 1624, Blaise Pascal’s version is considered the pioneer of the modern machine.
Blaise Pascal reached a point where he was turning his attention to physics and analytics in geometry. Italian physicist Evangelista Torricelli sought to enter an idea that was contrary to Galileo’s work on vacuums and tube pressure. Torricelli proposed that the weight of atmosphere air pushes down on water surface causing the water to enter a suction pump when the inside space is emptied.
Pascal went on to continue work that led to his conclusion that vacuums did exist in relation to ambient air pressure. In 1647, when Pascal was at peace with his conclusions, he was visited by Descartes. Descartes was not a believer in vacuums and sought to dissuade young Blaise of his results. In fact, Descartes was rather disgusted and wrote in a letter that Blaise Pascal was wrong and said that Blaise exhibited “…too much vacuum in his head”. Descartes was said to have altered his opinion later when he saw results that young Pascal had mentioned.
During this time in Blaise Pascal’s life, his father suffered a leg injury and had to stay home to recuperate. Two young men from a local religious order looked after him during those days he was on the mend. Their faith was to play a big part in the religious pursuits of young Pascal. The young man left his love of mathematics to follow after the study of religion. He wrote in His Pensees, he sought to “contemplate the greatness and the misery of man”.
In the same work, Pensees, develops a theory of which he described the Christian life. To believe in a wager (known today as Pascal’s wager) as a Christian followed that if what you believed in happened when you died, you came out ahead. On the other side was that as a Christian if what happened when you died was what society believed, you lost nothing. This played into his work with probability.
In 1653, after his father had passed away, Blaise Pascal returned to his love of working geometry and physics. He continued his work with gas and liquid pressures. This work developed into modern hydraulics. He began work with a former colleague, Fermat, and created what would become known as the “calculus of probabilities”. His work included the creation of the arithmetical triangle. In this discovery that the placement of various numbers could equate to reachable sums. “Probabilities” existed as to how certain numbers would equal out.
Events occurred that would cause Pascal to look at religion more in-depth again. He was driving a carriage when the horses spooked and he was involved in a runaway vehicle. As the lead horses went over the parapet of a bridge, leads broke which allowed Blaise to escape death. The experience was so harrowing that he kept a paper detailing the event close to him for the rest of his life.
After this experience, Blaise Pascal came to Christianity. He began to visit the Jansenist monastery in Port-Royal des Champs. Between 1656 and 1657, Blaise Pascal wrote and published (without his name being involved) 18 religious papers entitled Provincial Papers. These papers were created as a defense for the Jansenism faith which was counter to the beliefs that the Jesuits adhered to and was on trial as heresy. His close friend, also a Jansenism follower, was the main focus of the trials.
Pascal’s Penseeswas being developed during this time as well. It was his personal philosophies on how human suffering and a faith in a higher power were related. It is this work that contains his “wager”.
Towards his later years and due to declining health as a constant from his youth, Blaise Pascal retired to Port-Royal to live out his remaining years. His decision to follow a religious life kept him from ever marrying. His sister Jacqueline was apart of the Royal order because of the encouragement she received from her brother years ago to do so. It is believed that his constant desire to learn and study had a big part in the overall health issues that Blaise Pascal exhibited.
Besides his Pensees and Provincial Papers, Pascal would only write one more essay that dealt with mathematics. His work was based on the cycloid. Different aspects that dealt with a circle; including area of any cycloid segment and the center of gravity of segments.
Blaise Pascal loved challenges and he sought to interest mathematician greats of his day to help in solving the problems he faced with the cycloid. He presented prize winning contests to these noted scientists to answer his query about cycloid segments and center of gravity. Many that were given the test included men like Laloubere, Huygens, Fermat (his old colleague on calculus probability), Wallis and others. Wallis and Laloubere, whom entered the contest, were not successful in answering the question posed to them. Pascal was in turn presented with a challenge as a query to his query about the cycloid.
Pascal soon reached a point where making scientific discoveries was becoming less appealing. He soon became more involved in helping those who were less fortunate than himself. Pascal would attend to the needs of the poor and attending various churches. As his last days were growing closer, apparently Blaise Pascal figured his involvement with people on a spiritual level was more important than geometry and physics.
Blaise pascal passed away at the age of 39 suffering from a malignant tumor. He always seemed to live with pain that began in his youth. However, in his short life, Blaise Pascal accomplished much in the way of math and religious thought.
Completions by the life of Blaise Pascal
• The Pascaline-numerical wheel calculator that Pascal invented to aid his father in position as a tax collector. The wheel involved the movement of 8 separate dials that could add up to eight digit sums. This was done on the premise of base 10.
• The Pascal Triangle was another name for the Arithmetic Triangle. His work was an extended look at what Chinese mathematicians had discovered centuries before. The idea was that numbers in a certain placement could have the sums discovered by the adding of numbers to the left and directly above the target digit.
• Roulette Wheel-combining his teaching on probability and the uninterrupted motion of a numbered wheel.
• Unit of atmospheric pressure known as the Pascal.
• His beliefs on man’s sufferings and developing a relationship with God which included his famous “wager”. These would become a treatise for modern Christian Apologetics.