Pascal Portrait

Who was Blaise Pascal? Was he an inventor, a scientist, a mathematician, an engineer, a literary giant, a philosopher, a theologian? The answer to all these is yes. In his short lifetime (39 years) he made important contributions in all these areas. In mathematics his biggest contribution was probably his collaboration with Pierre de Fermat to form the beginnings of probability theory. Most students of mathematics are familiar with an arrangement of numbers called Pascal's triangle. Pascal didn't actually invent this triangle, but he made extensive use of it in the combinatorial problems associated with probability and was the first to publish a scientific paper dedicated solely to this triangle and its properties. In addition, he also derived a theorem that is an important part of projective geometry and made important contributions to finding the area and centroid of segments bounded by a famous curve called a cycloid. His biggest invention was probably the first mechanical calculator called the Pascaline. This invention also involved a great deal of engineering skill in order to actually bring it into production. He is also credited with the invention of the syringe, the hydraulic lift, and the design of the first mass-transit system in Paris. As a scientist he performed important experiments that helped to establish the existence of a vacuum. Although the existence of a vacuum is readily accepted today, it was hotly debated at the time. His experiments also established that atmospheric pressure decreases with altitude. He also established a law involving fluid pressure that is fittingly called Pascal's Law and is foundational to the field of hydraulics.

Pascal was a dedicated Christian and a member of a sect of Catholicism called Jansenism. This sect was a bitter rival of the Jesuits. Pascal composed a series of 18 letters that is collectively called Les Lettres Provinciales (The Provincial Letters) that defended Jansenism and made fun of the Jesuits. This collection of letters is considered a masterpiece of French literature. Voltaire, who was a vocal opponent of Christianity, kept a copy by his bed and referred to it often. At his death Pascal was in the process of writing a defense of Christianity that was not completed. The collection of his notes have been published under the title Pensées (Thoughts). Pensées is well regarded as both a work in philosophy and in Christian apologetics. I'm sure many of you have seen quotations from Pensées such as

All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing

If we submit everything to reason our religion will be left with nothing mysterious or supernatural. If we offend the principles of reason our religion will be absurd and ridiculous … There are two equally dangerous extremes: to exclude reason, to admit nothing but reason.

As you can see Blaise Pascal was a man of many talents. In the sections that follow we will present a brief biography of his life and look at his many accomplishments and his faith in more detail. In preparing this paper I looked at a great number of references, many of which are available online. Those that I found most helpful are listed in the Reference section at the end.

There is a Table of Contents for this paper (labeled Contents) on the top bar. To view or download a copy of this paper in Adobe Acrobat format you need to click on the link Pascal (PDF).