Blaise Pascal: Biography & Contributions to Science and Philosophy

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  • 0:03 Blaise Pascal
  • 0:32 Biography
  • 3:02 Achievements & Philosophy
  • 5:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we will learn about the 17th-century French mathematician, scientist, and philosopher Blaise Pascal, who invented a rudimentary calculator in addition to making significant contributions to math and philosophy.

Blaise Pascal

Before there was the big screen HD television, there were tiny, fuzzy, black-and-white televisions. Before there were flashy, high-performance sports cars, there was Henry Ford's Model T. Everything, from high-end products to the humblest of our daily tools, had to start somewhere. For the calculator, it started way back in 17th-century France, where one of the period's greatest scholars created a rudimentary calculator when he was only 18! This man was Blaise Pascal.

Biography

Pascal was born in Clermont, France, in 1623. Pascal was only three when his mother died, and when he was eight his father moved Pascal and his two sisters to Paris. Once in Paris, Pascal was home-schooled by his father who did not trust the local schools. Pascal's father attempted to steer Pascal - whom he recognized as a prodigy - toward literature and language, forbidding Pascal from studying mathematics and geometry. As an amateur mathematician himself, Pascal's father feared an interest in math would cause his son to forego learning other topics. However, the decree only piqued the young genius' interest, and before long Pascal was teaching himself geometry.

After discovering this, Pascal's father relented, teaching his son Euclid and allowing the young Pascal to accompany him to meetings of the local mathematical society. There Pascal met and conversed with many of the leading mathematicians of the period, including Marin Mersenne and Pierre Gassendi. Before long, Pascal was ready to publish his own findings. In 1640, he published the Essay on Conic Sections, which made important advances in the transcription of objects onto two-dimensional paper.

Pascal showed his father's fears to be unfounded as Pascal soon found other meaningful pursuits in addition to theoretical math. In 1642, he created a rudimentary calculator to aid his father in tax calculations. In the mid-1640s, Pascal also took up an avid interest in physics, and his 1651 Treatise on the Vacuum turned contemporary attitudes concerning the existence of vacuums on their head.

In 1646, Pascal experienced a profound religious awakening. When his father broke his hip, two bone-setters, who were also Jansenist converts, stayed with and cared for Pascal's father. Pascal soon realized many Jansenist beliefs were closely aligned with his own personal faith and he became a devoted convert.

In the 1650s, in part due to this religious conversion, Pascal's writing became increasingly philosophical and driven by his religious beliefs. In his 1656 Provincial Letters, for instance, Pascal fiercely defended the teachings and beliefs of the Jansenists against contemporary attacks leveled at the Catholic sect by Jesuit priests. Pascal died in 1662, only 39 years old, after an undiagnosed illness which historians surmise may have been a stomach tumor.

Achievements & Philosophy

The Pascaline, as he dubbed the calculator already discussed, was only marginally successful, though it did have its intended effect of making his father's job easier. Many of Pascal's greatest accomplishments were in mathematical theory or in physics. For example, when Pascal took interest in physics, he single-handedly changed the prevailing theories on vacuums. Prior to Pascal, most early scientists believed vacuums of space to be virtually non-existent, trusting in the ages-old Aristotelian maxim that 'nature abhors a vacuum.'

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