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Blaise Pascal

BIOGRAPHY 9.2 Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)

Blaise Pascal was born at Clermont-Ferrand, France. He was a youngster of precocious mental ability and, from an early age, his father devoted himself almost entirely to developing the boy's reasoning powers. At age 14, the elder Pascal introduced Blaise into Mersenne's famous academy where musicians, mathematicians, and natural scientists met regularly. By age 16, he formulated one of the basic theorems of projective geometry, now known as Pascal's theorem, which he described in the Essaie pour les Coniques and which drew acclaim from many for the boy's astonishing mathematical powers. From projective geometry, he turned to mechanical computation and invented the first calculating machine. Still at a young age, he made a number of lasting contributions to mathematics (some of which are preserved in his correspondence with de Fermat -- see Biography 8.3).

Unfortunately, Pascal's intellectual work was cut short by poor health and his desire to devote himself to prayer and self-denial. After his father's death, Pascal vacillated between a powerful entanglement with Jansenism, an anti-Jesuit religious cult, and a dissolute life (in which he quickly lost the moderate fortune he inherited, but also met the Chevalier de Méré who got him involved in the theory of probability). Today, strangely enough, Pascal is best known for Pascal's Triangle, which is discussed in text section 9.3.

Sources: Adapted from F. N. David, Games, Gods, and Gambling (New York: Hafner, 1962), Chapters 8, 9, and Appendix 4; Darrell Huff, How to Take a Chance (New York: W. W. Norton, 1959), pp. 170-173; Dictionary of Scientific Biography, vol. 10(New York: Scribner's 1974), pp. 330-342.

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