Mathematician, physicist, religious philosopher and wordsmith: By any standard, Blaise Pascal exemplified the term Renaissance man.
Born on June 19, 1623, in Clermont-Ferrand, France, Pascal established himself in his early teens as a self-taught mathematical prodigy [source: Britannica; "Prodigy"]. At the tender age of 16, he dreamed up Pascal's theorem. According to the theorem, if you draw any hexagon inside any conic section (the curve that occurs when a plane intersects a cone) and then extend the lines of opposite sides, they will meet in three points lying on the same line.
Switching gears, Pascal built one of the first digital calculators in 1642 to aid his father, a mathematician and tax collector, humbly dubbing it the pascaline. The pascaline used gears and pins to perform integer addition. Through a few simple mathematical tricks, a person could also use it to subtract, multiply and divide. Different versions could handle five-, six- and eight-digit numbers. The real trick, though, lay in tackling the nondecimal French monetary denominations, in which 20 sols equaled a livre and 12 deniers made a sol.
As a spinoff of his work on perpetual motion, which he explored in his efforts to improve the pascaline, Pascal also invented the core technology of the roulette machine [source: MIT].
Grade-schoolers still learn Pascal's triangle, a three-sided arrangement of integers such that every number equals the sum of two diagonal numbers above it, as the accompanying illustration demonstrates. Pascal didn't invent the configuration (Chinese and Persian mathematicians used it more than 500 years earlier). However, he found novel uses for it, including calculating probabilities.
In 1654, Pascal, now a worldly 31, brought his knack for formalization and analysis to bear once again as he worked with Pierre de Fermat to establish the calculus of probabilities. While corresponding to solve a gambling puzzle, the two men hit upon the idea of equally probable outcomes, a fundamental concept that had eluded other analysts. A coin flip landing heads or tails, or a single die roll coming up any number from 1-6, are examples of equally probable outcomes. Pascal codified their findings into a general rule for calculating probability, using his handy triangle to simplify the calculations [source: Fermat and Pascal].
Like any Renaissance man worth his salt, Pascal's talents weren't limited to one subject area. Up next, we'll see how his contributions to physics, metaphysics and letters also would reverberate for years to come.
Pascal Tackles Physics and Metaphysics
As Pascal grew older, he began delving increasingly into the physical sciences and Christian philosophy.
Around 1646, he began a series of atmospheric pressure experiments to test the theories of Galileo and Galileo's student Evangelista Torricelli (the Italian physicist who identified the principle governing barometers). Cobbling together his own mercury barometers, Pascal undertook expanded versions of his predecessors' experiments, producing findings that helped lay the foundations for hydrodynamics and hydrostatics [source: Britannica; "Blaise Pascal"]. Eventually, he even got a unit of pressure measurement named after him, the Pascal.
Pascal's pressure experiments also inspired him to invent the syringe and the hydraulic press. The latter derived from an observation that we now know as Pascal's Law: External pressure exerted on a confined liquid propagates undiminished through the liquid in all directions no matter where the pressure is applied.
Hydraulic presses use this principle to create mechanical advantage: When a small amount of force pushes a small piston a long distance into an incompressible fluid (like water, oil or hydraulic fluid), a larger and heavier piston on the other end of the fluid system will move upward a short distance. Think of it as liquid leverage. Just as a lever allows you to lift a heavier weight than you normally could, the force multiplication described by Pascal's Law explains how hydraulic lifts elevate cars and how hydraulic brakes apply enough force to stop a several-hundred-ton airplane.
Brilliant as his technical inventions and physical research were, Pascal gained perhaps more fame for his far-reaching contributions to philosophy and Christian thought. His best-known philosophical invention was Pascal's Wager, the argument that pragmatism demands living your life as if God exists, because you will lose little if God is a myth but stand to gain immeasurably (eternal life) if God is real [source: Honderich; "Pascal's Wager"].
Now a religious philosopher and Christian apologist, Pascal argued for the Christian faith and for God's existence using psychology and history, instead of relying on more typical metaphysical analysis [source: Honderich; "Blaise Pascal"]. He set out much of his argument in his unfinished work of Christian apologetics, Apologie de la religion chrétienne, which scholars later collected with other notes in a work known as Pensées (Thoughts) [source: Britannica; "Blaise Pascal"].
Pascal's inventiveness extended to literature as well. His work Provincales -- an attack on Jesuits in defense of Antoine Arnauld, a defender of Jansenism on trial at the time -- remains popular to this day. Nicolas Boileau, the founder of French literary criticism, considered Pascal's writings to mark the beginning of modern French prose [source: Britannica; "Blaise Pascal"].
Like Archimedes or Galileo, Pascal was a true polymath, the product of a disciplined, curious and analytical mind.
- American Heritage Science Dictionary. "Pascal's Law." 2005. Houghton Mifflin Company.http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Pascal%27s+law
- Encyclopedia Britannica Online. "Blaise Pascal." (March 19, 2011)http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/445406/Blaise-Pascal
- Encyclopedia Britannica Online. "Prodigy." 2011. (March 19, 2011)http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/477899/prodigy
- Fermat, Pierre de and Blaise Pascal. "Fermat and Pascal on Probability." (March 21, 2011)http://www.york.ac.uk/depts/maths/histstat/pascal.pdf
- Hazewinkel, Michiel. "Pascal's Theorem." Encyclopedia of Mathematics. 2002.
- Hazewinkel, Michiel. "Pascal's Triangle." Encyclopedia of Mathematics. 2002.
- Honderich, Ted. "Pascal's Wager." The Oxford Guide to Philosophy. 2005.
- Honderich, Ted. "Blaise Pascal." The Oxford Guide to Philosophy. 2005.
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology School of Engineering. "Mechanical Calculator." May 2003. (March 20, 2011)http://web.mit.edu/invent/iow/pascal.html