Life | Accomplishments | Pascal's Theorem | Bibliography | Back to the front page
Blaise Pascal - Life
Born in 1623 in Clermont, France, Blaise Pascal is one of the most well known mathematicians of all times. His mother, Antoinette, died when he was only three, leaving his father to raise the sickly Blaise and his two sisters, Gilberte and Jacqueline. After the death of his wife, Étienne moved the family to Paris. (Davidson) He did not trust his son's education to the local schools and took it upon himself to teach Blaise at home. He felt he could teach his son as well as any schoolteacher could.
Although he devoted the majority of his adult life to religion and philosophy, Pascal's genius lies in mathematics and science. Étienne was an accomplished mathematician who refused to allow his son to study mathematics. This was because he, being a mathematician himself, felt that it would take away from his other studies since math was such a fulfilling subject and it ``fills and greatly satisfies the mind.'' (Cole) Étienne wanted his son to first learn the humanities and later learn math and science.
Pascal's interest in math began with the curiosity about this subject which he was not taught. To his many questions about math, Étienne replied with vague answers. He told his son that math ``was the way of making precise figures and finding the proportions among them.'' (Cole) Pascal took this statement and began to make his own discoveries about math. According to his sister Gilberte, Pascal ``discovered'' geometry on his own. At the young age of twelve, he was drawing geometric figures on the floor of his playroom and it is said that he discovered, on his own, the fact that the interior angles of a triangle add up to the sum of two right angles (Euclid's 32nd proposition of book I). According to Gilberte, it was around this time that her father walked in to find his son drawing figures on the floor. Etienne watched his son and realized the genius of the boy. The proud father presented his son with a copy of Euclid's Elements and from this time on allowed him to continue his studies in mathematics. (Bishop)
Pascal's father then brought him into the society of mathematicians with whom he was associated with. The Académie libre met every week to discuss current topics in science and math. (Bishop) Members of this group, headed by Mersenne, included other reknowned mathematicians such as Desargue, Roberval, Fermat and Descartes. (Davidson) At these meetings, Pascal was introduced to the latest developments in math. Soon he was making his own discoveries and publishing his own results. By the age of sixteen, he published his Essai pour les Coniques (1640) In the same year, the family moved to Rouen. Two years later, Pascal began working on his calculating machine which was completed in 1644. (Krailsheimer)
1646 marked the beginning of Pascal's spiritual transformation. When Étienne injured his hip, the two bonesetters he called on were Jansenist converts who had devoted their lives to helping others. They taught the Pascals about Jansenism and Blaise, who found Jansenist ideas to be similar to his own beliefs, soon adopted the strict doctrines of the religion. (Bishop)
The same year, Pascal found a new interest in physics. A family friend introduced the Pascals to Torricelli's experimet involving a tube of mercury turned upside down in a bowl also filled with mercury. They found that the mercury fell to a certain point in the tube and stopped. Pascal continued to conduct the experiment many times with variations. The results of his experiments and his conclusions were published in 1651 as Traite du vide (Treatise on the vacuum). (Davidson).
In the summer of 1647, Pascal fell ill due to being overworked. He and Jacqueline moved back to Paris. The next few years were eventful for Pascal. He composed a treatise on conic sections in 1648 which is now lost. In 1649, he was granted rights to manufacture his calculating machine, which he perfected five years before. In 1651, his father died. Three months after his death Jacqueline joined the nuns at Port-Royal.
1654 marked an important year in the life of Pascal. His work on probability theory and the arithmetic triangle took a lot of his time. Pascal's work on probability theory is widely known due to his correspodence with Fermat. (Renyi) It was in this year that he published Traite du triangle arithmetique. After another religious conversion in 1654, in which Pascal fully commit himself to God, his writings were primarily of a philosophical nature. In 1656, he finished the Provinciales, a series of letters on religion. (Krailsheimer) In 1657, he began the Apologie of which the Pensees is all he was able to complete before his death. In the latter half of 1661 Pascal fell ill and by June of the next year, he was so ill he moved in with Gilberte. Blaise Pascal died of an undiagnosed illness on August 19, 1662.