Blaise Pascal was born in a family of three on 19th June the year 1623, in France in a town called Clermont-Ferrand. He was not fortunate enough because his mother died when he was just three years old. His family later relocated to Paris. Blaise lived a life of constant poor health, but God had blessed him with a mind that was brilliant by any standards. At first his father had feared that learning mathematics might overstrain Blaise, a fear that only aroused Blaise interest in mathematics with a higher intensity.
The life of a great mathematician.
Blaise was basically a child prodigy, who was solely educated by his father, a local judge at Clermont. His earliest works were mostly in the applied and natural sciences where he managed to make important contributions to the study of fluid mechanisms, where he made clarifications on the concepts of vacuum and pressure by using Torricelli’s work. While still a boy in 1642, Blaise begun pioneering work on machines that could make calculations, and just after three years of effort and making about 50 prototypes, he eventually come up with the first mechanical calculator. The following ten years saw him built twenty such machines that he called the Pascaline. This machine could add and subtract, it involved a set of wheels each having numbers from zero to nine. These wheels were connected with gears. This meant that one complete turn that the wheel made will move the next wheel through a tenth of a turn. The machine was of great help to his father’s business and also to many others that were involved with calculations. Despite it being expensive to make and also difficult to operate, it proved to be essential in the subsequent developmental advances in calculators and computers. He was undoubtedly a first order mathematician who helped in the creation of two other areas of research. Just at the age of sixteen, Blaise wrote a significant piece on projective geometry and also later on worked together with Pierre de Fermat on the theory of probability, a topic that influenced strongly the steps made in social sciences and modern economics. Correspondences between these two men show that Blaise and Fermat equally participated in coming up with the theory. Despite the fact that their investigation based their findings on various gambling situations, the theory has many applications. All insurance schemes are based on it and also many other branches of science use it, for instance in quantum physics where probability is used to describe the behavior of particles. Just like Torricelli and Galileo, Blaise differed with Aristotle’s followers who argued that nature abhors a vacuum. This saw many disputes emerge but his argument was eventually accepted (Ball par. 3).
When Blaise was at the core of his researches in 1650, he suddenly discarded his dear pursuits to study religion, he even persuaded his younger sister to join Port Royal Society. He was left with the duty of looking after his father’s estate in 1953, where he went back to his old self again, and made numerous experiments on how liquids and gases exerted pressure. It is also at this time that he came up with the arithmetical triangle that helped him and Fermat to create the calculus of probabilities. His essay on the geometry of conics that he wrote earlier on in 1639 but was not published until 1779 was apparently based on the teachings of Desargues. The two results from this are both interesting and important. The first one being what was called the Pascal’s Theorem which simply stated that if a hexagon is inscribed in a conic, then the points where opposite sides intersect will lie in a straight line. The second one which is supposed to have been Desargues work, stated that if a quadrilateral is inscribed in a conic and a straight line drawn cutting the sides in the order A, B, C, and D, and the conic in P and Q, then PA. PC: PB. PD = QA. QC: QB. QD (Pascal par. 6)
Blaise used his arithmetical triangle in 1653, but from then no account about it had been written until 1665. The triangle is made in such a way that the each horizontal line is formed from the one above it. This is done by making every number in it to be equal to the sum of the numbers above and to its left in the immediate row above it. This was a method that was basically used to determine the binomial coefficients for any value given, determining the probability of certain outcomes that happen in nature. Although it was claimed that Blaise was not the first one to come up with this method, it is alleged that it was discovered earlier on, 400 years ago, by a Chinese mathematician Yang Hui. In the seventh chapter of his pensees, Blaise made an illegitimate use of this probability theory. He argued that as the value of eternal happiness has to be infinite, then despite the probability of a religious life ensuring one with eternal happiness being small, its expectation must be sufficiently enough to make it religiously worthwhile. This, if it is anything to go by, applies to any other religion that promises eternal happiness to its followers. From this, Blaise shows the undesirability of applying mathematical concepts to questions of morality whose data may be outside the range of an exact science. It can be deduced from this that no one had more contempt as Pascal in regard to those who change their opinion on seeing a prospect of some material benefit (Lamb Magazine par. 9).
Pascal’s last mathematical work was that he did on the cycloid in 1658. This is the curve that is traced by a point on the circumference of a circular figure which roles on a straight line. In 1630, Galileo had looked at this curve and had even suggested that bridges should be build using this form. The area of the cycloid was found four years later by Roberval, but Descartes challenged him and Fermat to find its tangents, a challenge that Fermat managed to solve. Many mathematicians came up with many questions which were solved by Pascal in 1658. His results were issued as a challenge to the whole world. Blaise’s own solutions were affected by the method of indivisibles, which were similar to those that a mathematician today will only solve with the help of integral calculus (Lamb Magazine par. 11).
Pascal later on had started attending parties where gambling was being carried out, this lifestyle soon distracted him. He had a narrow escape from death in 1654, when the horses pulling his carriage suddenly took off while crossing a bridge. The horses died, but Pascal escaped unhurt, something that convinced him that it was God who had saved him, he therefore reassessed the way he was living and as from the age of thirty-one to his death at thirty nine years of age, he had only one desire, to turn the hearts of men to his savior, Jesus. Therefore most of his last years on earth were devoted to his religious writings. Some of these writings he wrote were the famous series of 18 letters that are known as the “provincial letters” that many consider to have marked the start of the current French prose. It is also during this time that he wrote the outstanding book that he called the Pensees that is translated as “French for thoughts” in which he brings out his strong Christian beliefs. He appreciated that man could not gain knowledge by his own wisdom. He wrote that God was more than just a creator, but also loving as well. He is known for his famous statement called the Pascal’s wager where he applied his thinking to the question of salvation using probabilities. He wrote “How can anyone lose who chooses to become a Christian? If, when he dies, there turns out to be no God and his faith was in vain, he has lost nothing- in fact, he has been happier in life than his non-believing friends. If, however, there is a God and a heaven and also hell, then he has, gained heaven and his skeptical friends will have lost everything in hell” (Lamont par. 7). Pascal died at the age of 39 in 1662 in Paris.
In honor of Pascal’s many contributions in science, the name Pascal has been used as the SI unit of pressure; it has been given to a programming language and as the Pascal’s law in hydrostatics. Pascal’s triangle and the Pascal’s Wager both still bear his name. His most influential contribution to mathematics was the probability theory that is current used in economics and actuarial science. He is seen as one of the founding fathers of the computer, those who laid the foundations of the social sciences and economics. He is regarded in literature as one of the most influential authors during the French classical period and as a great master of French prose. In brief it can be said that despite the short life that was full of turmoil in terms of sickness and pain, he made great contributions to mathematics, science and also literature.