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Blaise Pascal

Blaise Pascal was a 17th-century French mathematician, physicist, and philosopher who made significant contributions to all these fields. Pascal is regarded as one of the most influential thinkers in modern times due to his contributions to the development of the mathematical theory of probability and the design of the mechanical calculator. In this article, we will explore the life and legacy of Blaise Pascal, and the impact he has had on the modern world.

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Blaise Pascal

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Blaise Pascal was a 17th-century French mathematician, physicist, and philosopher who made significant contributions to all these fields. Pascal is regarded as one of the most influential thinkers in modern times due to his contributions to the development of the mathematical theory of probability and the design of the mechanical calculator. In this article, we will explore the life and legacy of Blaise Pascal, and the impact he has had on the modern world.

Blaise Pascal, Portrait of Blaise Pascal, StudySmarterFig. 1. Portrait of Blaise Pascal. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Born19th June 1623
Died19th August 1662
Known for
  • Probability theory
  • Pascal distribution
  • Pascal's wager
  • Pascal's triangle
  • Pascal's law
  • Pascal's rule
  • Pascal's theorem
Inventions
  • Pascal's Calculator
  • Syringe
  • Hydraulic Press
  • Barometer
Books
  • Lettres provinciales (1657-1658)

  • De l'Esprit géométrique (1658)

  • Traité du triangle arithmétique (1665)

  • Traité de l'équilibre des liqueurs et de la pesanteur de la masse de l'air (1663)

  • De Alea Geometriae (1654)

  • Pensées

Blaise Pascal: Biography

Blaise Pascal was born on June 19, 1623, in Clermont-Ferrand, France, to a wealthy family. His father was Etienne Pascal, a renowned mathematician and presiding judge of the tax court at Clermont-Ferrand. His mother died in 1626, after which the family moved to Paris, where Etienne home-schooled his children.

Pascal's sister, Jacqueline Pascal, was a literary prodigy, while Pascal himself showed remarkable talent in mathematics. By the age of 16, he had already developed a new theorem on conic sections, which caught the attention of even René Descartes. He continued to impress his contemporaries with the invention of the first calculator (the Pascaline) and his contributions to the understanding of hydrostatics and the invention of the hydraulic press.

Blaise Pascal, Pascaline sketch, StudySmarterFig. 2. Sketch of the pascaline. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Even though the term "burnout" was not coined until the 1970s, the overworking exhaustion caught up with Blaise Pascal. He fell physically ill due to this, but continued working on his mathematical and physics theories.

However, Pascal was not only a man of the sciences. After his father fell ill in 1646, Pascal started to get more interested in religion. Two male devotees looked after his father while he was ill and had a profound impact on the young Pascal. He became a follower of Jansenism, a current of catholicism which believes in predestination (and repudiates free will), and that divine graces and not good actions are the key to salvation.

In 1655 Pascal entered Port-Royal, an abbey with a strong Jansenism current in his time. After becoming a part of the abbey, he never wrote any treaty without their request, and he never published under his name again. Two of his most famous works, Les Provinciales and the Pensées, are from his time in Port-Royal. They are both texts that focus on philosophy and theology rather than science.

Eventually, by request of the Solitaires of Port-Royal (men who chose to live a humble and ascetic life in this abbey), he turned again to science. They asked for his help creating the Élements de géométrie. Subsequently, he was encouraged to publish his findings on cycloid curves, a subject that had captivated the attention of leading mathematicians of that era.

Although Pascal was happy to continue his scientific contributions, he became severely ill in 1659. His illness did not allow him to lead a regular working life, and so he limited himself to helping the poor and leading an ascetic life. Eventually, he died in 1662 possibly from carcinomatous meningitis following a malignant ulcer of the stomach.

Blaise Pascal: Achievements

Despite his sicknesses and his later religious and simple life, Pascal contributed significantly to mathematics and physics. At a very young age, he developed a new theorem on conic sections, and his achievements in these fields only grew from then on.

Conic sections are the curves formed by the intersection of a plane and a cone. Pascal's work on conic sections helped to lay the foundation for projective geometry, which is the study of geometric properties that are invariant under projection transformations.

One of Pascal's most important contributions to the study of conic sections was his theorem on the hexagrammum mysticum, which states that if a hexagon is inscribed in a conic section, then the three points where opposite sides intersect lie on a straight line.

Some of his further contributions were:

  • Pascal's Triangle: Pascal developed the arithmetic triangle, which is now known as Pascal's triangle. It is a triangular array of numbers that has many mathematical applications, including in probability theory.

Pascal's triangle is formed by starting with the number 1 at the top, and then adding adjacent numbers in each row to get the next number in the row. For example, the second row is 1 1, the third row is 1 2 1, the fourth row is 1 3 3 1, and so on.

Blaise Pascal, Pascal Triangle, StudySmarterFig. 3. Example of a Pascal triangle.

Pascal's triangle has connections to many other areas of mathematics and physics, including combinatorics, probability, and number theory. It is also used in computer algorithms for generating fractal patterns and in the calculation of probabilities in quantum mechanics.

  • Probability Theory: Pascal is considered one of the founders of probability theory. He developed the concept of expected value, which is now used extensively in statistics and economics.
  • Laws of Pressure: Pascal's experiments with fluids led to the development of the laws of pressure, which are still used in modern engineering. The law states that a change in pressure applied to an enclosed fluid is transmitted uniformly in all directions throughout the fluid.

Blaise Pascal: Inventions

Pascal did not only contributed theoretically to mathematics and physics, but he also invented some tools that significantly helped advance the fields he was involved in.

  • Pascal's Calculator: at a very young age, Pascal invented a mechanical calculator to help his father with taxes, called the Pascaline. It was the first device capable of performing addition and subtraction, and it paved the way for the development of modern calculators and computers.
  • Syringe: based on his work on hydrostatics, Pascal also invented the syringe. It consisted of a plunger connected to a sphere with holes. When the plunger was pressed, the water would spurt equally out of all holes. This principle can be applied to modern syringes.
  • Hydraulic Press: Pascal's experiments with fluids led to the invention of the hydraulic press, which is now used extensively in modern engineering. The device uses Pascal's principle of pressure to multiply the force applied to the fluid.
  • Barometer: Pascal's work on atmospheric pressure led to the invention of the barometer, which is used to measure air pressure. This invention helped to advance the field of meteorology.

Blaise Pascal: Books

Pascal left his thoughts and theories written down in several books, some of which are still indispensable today.

  • Lettres provinciales (1657-1658): These letters are a series of satirical essays that criticize the Jesuit order and defend the Jansenist movement in 17th-century France. They are considered a masterpiece of French literature.

  • De l'Esprit géométrique (1658): In this book, Pascal argues that the proper use of reason and logic is essential for understanding and solving problems. He uses mathematical examples to illustrate his point.

  • Traité du triangle arithmétique (1665): This book is a treatise on combinatorics and algebraic geometry. Pascal introduces his famous triangle and uses it to solve problems in probability and number theory.

  • Traité de l'équilibre des liqueurs et de la pesanteur de la masse de l'air (1663): This treatise deals with the principles of hydrostatics and atmospheric pressure. Pascal demonstrates that air has weight and that the pressure of the atmosphere decreases with altitude.

  • De Alea Geometriae (1654): in this book, Pascal laid the ground for the field of probability and introduced the concept of expected value, among other key knowledge.

  • Pensées: This unfinished book is a collection of thoughts and notes on religion and philosophy. Pascal discusses the human condition, the nature of faith, and the existence of God.

In conclusion, Blaise Pascal was not only a brilliant mathematician and philosopher but also a remarkable innovator who made significant contributions to the field of science and engineering. His inventions, including Pascal's calculator, hydraulic press, barometer, and Pascal's law, continue to have a profound impact on modern technology and manufacturing processes. Blaise Pascal's legacy as an inventor and innovator continues to inspire generations of scientists and engineers.

Blaise Pascal: Facts

Here are some facts that you might not know about Pascal:

  1. Pascal was a devout Christian and had a mystical experience in 1654 that led him to abandon his scientific work for a time and focus on religious writings.
  2. Pascal died very young: he was only 39 years old when he passed away in 1662.
  3. The SI unit of pressure, the pascal (Pa), is named after him.
  4. Pascal's famous "wager" argued that it is rational to believe in God, even if there is no evidence to support that belief. He argued this through game theory. Briefly, he invites the reader to weigh the benefits and disadvantages that arise if God exists or not combined with if someone believes in God or not.
  5. Pascal was a contemporary of René Descartes, and the two had a famous disagreement over the nature of vacuum.

References

  1. https://demonstrations.wolfram.com/PascalsSyringe/
  2. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Blaise-Pascal/Les-Provinciales

Frequently Asked Questions about Blaise Pascal

Blaise Pascal's most famous discoveries are probability theory, Pascal's triangle and the laws of pressure.

Blaise Pascal was famous for his numerous contributions to mathematics, physics and theology. He invented the first calculator, and established the laws of pressure and probability theory among other things.

Blaise Pascal invented:

  • the first calculator
  • the syringe
  • the hydraulic press
  • the barometer

No, Blaise Pascal never had a wife.

Blaise Pascal died in 1662 possibly from carcinomatous meningitis following a malignant ulcer of the stomach.

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