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Blaise Pascal

1623-62

Blaise Pascal

Blaise Pascal was a French mathematician, physicist, theologian, and man of letters. He was born at Clermont-Ferrand on 19 June, 1623, and his mother died only three years later, leaving his father Étienne, an excellent mathematician himself, to raise and educate the family. They moved to Paris in 1631, and it became clear that Pascal was a mathematical prodigy, publishing at 16 an essay on conic sections that René Descartes could not believe was the work of one so young. In 1646, Pascal converted to an austere and rigorous form of Roman Catholicism called Jansenism, accepting a doctrine that espoused absolute predestination, denied free will, and stated that only the grace of God rather than good works could bring salvation. 1651 saw the death of Pascal's father, and his sister, Jacqueline, consequently entered the Jansenist community at Port Royal. Pascal's subsequent correspondence with Pierre de Fermat laid the foundations for the mathematical theory of probability.

After a spiritually revelatory "night of fire" on 23 November, 1654, Pascal too entered Port Royal, and devoted his time to religious writing, particularly against the Jesuits, who were vehemently opposed to the Jansenists. From this point on he wrote only at the request of the monks there, and no longer published anything under his own name. The most famous of the religious works that followed was the Lettres Provinciales ('Provincial Letters') of 1656: eighteen pamphlets attacking the Jesuits' moral laxity and nonsensical jargon, written in defense of the Jansenist Antoine Arnauld. From 1657 to 1658 Pascal put together notes for a work of Christian apologetics, Apologie de la religion chrétienne, which was never finished, but was nonetheless published after his death as the famous Pensées ('Thoughts'), a profound discourse on spiritual matters. Despite deteriorating health, he was encouraged to produce papers on cycloid curves, which laid the groundwork for integral calculus. After much suffering, Pascal died of a malignant stomach ulcer on 19 August, 1662.



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