Blaise Pascal

By Ian West


Mathematician Blaise Pascal was born on June 19, 1623, in Clermont-Ferrand, France. In the 1640s he invented the Pascaline, an early calculator, and further validated Evangelista Torricelli's theory concerning the cause of barometrical variations. In the 1650s, Pascal laid the foundation of probability theory with Pierre de Fermat and published the theological work Les Provinciales, a groundbreaking series of letters that defended his Jansenist faith. Pascal is also widely known for his body of notes posthumously released as the Pensées. He died in Paris on August 19, 1662.

Background and Early Life

Inventor, mathematician, physicist and theological writer Blaise Pascal, born on June 19, 1623 in Clermont-Ferrand, France, was the third of four children and only son to Etienne and Antoinette Pascal. His mother passed away when Blaise was just a toddler and he became exceptionally close to his two sisters Gilberte and Jacqueline. His father, Etienne, was a tax collector and talented mathematician.

Etienne moved the family to Paris in 1631. He had decided to educate Blaise—a child prodigy—at home so he could design an unorthodox curriculum and make sure that Blaise was able to express his own innate curiosity. It's also believed that Blaise may have been educated at home due to issues around his health. Ironically, Etienne omitted mathematics from his son's early curriculum out of concern that Blaise would become so fascinated with geometry that he wouldn’t be able to focus on classical subjects.

The beginning of Blaise’s education was geared toward languages, especially Latin and Greek. Even so, Etienne's plan backfired: The fact that mathematics was a forbidden topic made the subject even more interesting to the inquisitive boy, who at the age of 12 began exploring geometry on his own. He made up his own terminology, not having learned official mathematical terms, and quickly managed to work out that the sum of a triangle's angles are equal to two right angles.

Mystic Hexagram and Religious Conversion

Etienne was impressed. In answer to Blaise's unswerving fascination, his father permitted him to read the works of ancient Greek mathematician Euclid. Etienne also allowed Blaise to accompany him to meetings at Mersenne's Academy in Paris. It was there, at age 16, that Blaise presented a number of his early theorems, including his Mystic Hexagram, to some of the premier mathematical thinkers of the time.

After a bit of political tumult, the Pascal family drew up stakes once again in 1640. They moved to Rouen, France, where Blaise's father had been appointed the previous year to collect taxes. In 1640, Pascal also published his first written work, Essay on Conic Sections. The writings constituted an important leap forward in projective geometry, which involved transferring a 3-D object onto a 2-D field.

In 1646, Etienne was seriously injured in a fall that resulted in a broken hip, rendering him housebound. The accident created a shift in the family's religious beliefs, as the Pascals had never fully embraced local Jesuit ideas. After Etienne's accident, he received medical visits from two brothers who were also followers of Jansenism, a particular denomination within the Catholic Church. Their influence, presumably coupled with trauma over Etienne's health, led the family to convert. Blaise became devoutly religious and sister Jacqueline eventually becoming a Jansenist nun.

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