Blaise Pascal, 1623 - 1662

portrait of Blaise Pascal


Born: 19 June 1623, Clermont-Ferrand, Auvergne, France
Died: 19 August 1662, Paris, France

Few 17 year old boys can claim to have created a mathematical theorem known centuries later, but Blaise Pascal could. The Pascal theorem, laid out in his first serious work on mathematics, Essai pour les coniques ("Essay on Conics") was sent in by his father to Père Mersenne, the leading mathematician of the era. It was so advanced that it brought accusations that it was the work not of Blaise Pascal, but of his father Etienne.

While Etienne Pascal didn't create the theorem, he did nurture his son's talent. Blaise's mother died when he was three, and Etienne took control of the education of his children Blaise, Jacqueline, and Gilberte. Blaise was the most talented in mathematics and science.

After a brush with the displeasure of Cardinal Richelieu, Etienne Pascal was assigned as tax commissioner of Rouen, in northern France, in 1639. This led Blaise to create a mechanical calculator, called a Pascal's calculator or Pascaline, to help his father in 1642. It was not a commercial success due to cost. Around this time, he began showing signs of the chronic illness that eventually killed him.

Pascal produced many important advances in mathematics, science and philosophy. He created a convenient way of representing binomial coefficients (Pascal's Triangle), helped invent probability theory, and laid out Pascal's Wager, a probability-based argument for belief in God. He was also fascinated by hydrodynamics and hydrostatics, inventing both the hydraulic press and the syringe.

In 1654 Pascal had a vision which led him to write his first major work on religion, the Provincial Letters. The popular eighteen-letter series, published between 1656 and 1657, denounced casuistry as an excuse for moral laxness, incensed Louis XIV, and influenced the style of later writers such as Voltaire and Rousseau. His most influential theological work was the Pensées, intended to be a sustained and coherent defense of the Christian faith. Unfortunately, he died (of tuberculosis, stomach cancer, or both) before its completion.

Biography from Wikipedia and The MacTutor History of Mathematics

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