Blaise Pascal biography
Mathematician Blaise Pascal was born on June 19, 1623, in Clermont-Ferrand, France. In 1642, he invented the Pascaline, an early calculator. Also in the 1640s, he validated Torricelli's theory concerning the cause of barometrical variations. In the 1650s, Pascal laid the foundation of probability theory and published the theological works Pénsees and Provinciales. Pascal died in Paris on August 19, 1662.
Inventor, mathematician, physicist and theological writer Blaise Pascal, born on June 19, 1623 in Clermont-Ferrand, France, was the third child and only son to Etienne and Antoinette Pascal. His mother, Antoinette, passed away when he was just a toddler. He was exceptionally close to his two older sisters, Gilberte and Jacqueline. His father, Etienne, was a tax collector and a talented mathematician.
Etienne moved the family to Paris in 1631. There, he decided to educate Blaise—a child prodigy—himself so he could design his own unorthodox curriculum and make sure that Blaise didn't work too hard. Ironically, Etienne entirely omitted mathematics from Blaise’s early curriculum. Etienne was concerned that Blaise would become so fascinated with geometry that he wouldn’t be unable to focus on classical subjects. The beginning of Blaise’s education in Paris 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 even made up his own terminology, not having learned the official terms. The prodigy quickly managed to work out that the sum of a triangle's angles are equal to two right angles.
Etienne was impressed. In answer to Blaise's unswerving fascination, his father permitted him to read Euclid. Etienne also at last allowed Blaise to accompany him to meetings at the mathematics academy in Paris. It was there, at age 16, that Blaise presented a number of his early theorems, including his "mystical hexagon." Blaise could not have asked for a better audience; in attendance were some of the premier mathematical thinkers of the time, including Marin Mersenne, Pierre Gassendi and Clyde Mydorge, to name a few.
In 1640, the Pascal family drew up stakes once again. They moved to Rouen, France, where Blaise's father had been appointed to collect taxes. Within just a year of moving, Blaise published his first written work, Essay on Conic Sections. The essay 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 an accident that rendered him housebound. The accident created a shift in the whole family's religious beliefs. The Pascals had never fully embraced the local Jesuits' ideas. After Etienne's accident, a visit from a group of Jansenists led the family to convert to that belief system. During the year that Etienne convalesced, two Jansenist brothers watched over Blaise.
As a result of their influence, Blaise became devoutly religious.
Inventions and Discoveries
A true trailblazer and a child prodigy to boot, Blaise Pascal started his prolific stream of groundbreaking inventions and discoveries when he was still just a teen.
In 1642, at age 18, inspired by the idea of making his father's job of calculating taxes easier, Pascal invented an early calculator, dubbed the Pascaline. (German polymath William Schickard had developed and manufactured an earlier version of the digital calculator in 1624.) The Pascaline was a numerical wheel calculator with eight movable dials, each representing a numerical digit, such as ones, tens and hundreds. It was capable of adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing.
Pascal's invention was not without its glitches: There was a discrepancy between the calculator's design and the structure of the French currency of the time. The machines went into production in 1642, but Pascal continued to work on improving his calculator until 1645. (Fifty prototypes had been produced by 1652, but the Pascaline was never a big seller. It went out of production less than a year later.)
In 1648, eight years after his first essay was published, Pascal starting writing more of his theorems on conic sections in The Generation of Conic Sections, but he pushed the work aside until 1654.
At the end of the 1640s, Pascal temporarily focused his experiments on the physical sciences. Following in Evangelista Torricelli’s footsteps, Pascal experimented with how atmospheric pressure could be estimated in terms of weight. By taking readings of the barometric pressure at various altitudes, Pascal validated Torricelli's theory concerning the cause of barometrical variations.
In the 1650s, Pascal set about trying to create a perpetual motion machine, the purpose of which was to produce more energy than it used. In the process, he stumbled upon an accidental invention. In 1655, Pascal's roulette machine was born. Aptly, he derived its name from the French word for "little wheel."
Overlapping his work on the roulette machine was Pascal's correspondence with mathematical theorist Pierre de Fermat, beginning in 1654. Through their letters discussing dice problems, and through Pascal's own experiments, Pascal discovered that there is a fixed likelihood of any certain outcome when it comes to the roll of the dice. This discovery was the basis of the mathematical theory of probability, the eye-opening realization that events and their outcomes did not occur randomly.
Although the specific dates are uncertain, Pascal also reportedly invented a rather primitive form of the wristwatch. It was an informal invention to say the least: The mathematician was known to strap his pocket watch to his wrist with a piece of string, presumably for the sake of convenience while tinkering with his other inventions.
Pascal struggled with insomnia and a painful digestive disorder called dyspepsia from the time he was a teen.
Regarding his physical health, he was described as "a man of slight build with a loud voice and somewhat overbearing manner. … [H]e lived most of his adult life in great pain. He had always been in delicate health, suffering even in his youth from migraine." Over the years, Pascal’s constant work took a toll on his already fragile health.
Pascal died of a malignant stomach tumor at his sister Gilbrete's house in Paris on August 19, 1662. By then, the tumor had metastasized in his brain. He was 39 years old at the time of his death. His complex personality has been described as "precocious, stubbornly persevering, a perfectionist, pugnacious to the point of bullying ruthlessness yet seeking to be meek and humble."
Pascal's inventions and discoveries have been instrumental to developments in the fields of geometry, physics and computer science. His exploration of binomial coefficients influenced Sir Isaac Newton, leading him to uncover his "general binomial theorem for fractional and negative powers."
In the 1970s, the Pascal (Pa) unit was named after Blaise Pascal, in honor of his contributions to the understanding of atmospheric pressure and how it could be estimated in terms of weight. The Pascal is a unit of pressure that constitutes the force of a single newton acting on a square-meter surface. It is measured using the meter-kilogram-second system, which relies on an extended version of the metric system to calculate pressure.
In 1972, computer scientist Nicklaus Wirth invented a computer language and insisted on naming it after Pascal. This was Wirth's way of memorializing Pascal's invention of the Pascaline, one of the earliest forms of the modern computer. Pascal is also credited with building the foundation of probability theory.