Blaise Pascal
Blaise Pascal

1623-1662

Blaise Pascal's father had unorthodox educational views and decided to teach his son himself. He decided that his son was not to study mathematics before the age of 15, and all mathematics texts were removed from their house. Pascal's curiosity was raised by this, and he started to work on geometry himself at the age of 12. He discovered that the sum of the angles of a triangle are two right angles and, when his father found out, he relented and allowed him a copy of Euclid. By the time he was 15, Pascal came to admire the work of Desargues. At 16, Pascal presented a paper on projective geometry, including Pascal's mystic hexagon, and published a work on conic sections.

Pascal invented the first digital calculator to help his father with his work collecting taxes. Pascal also did a series of experiments on atmospheric pressure. He proved to his satisfaction that a vacuum existed, and that the pressure of the atmosphere decreases with height, and published this information. In 1653, Pascal began work on mathematics and physics writing a treatise in which he explains Pascal's law of pressure.

Although Pascal was not the first to study what is now known as Pascal's Triangle, his work on the topic was the most important to date. His work on the binomial coefficients was to lead Newton to his discovery of the general binomial theorem for fractional and negative powers.

In correspondence with Fermat, he laid the foundation for the theory of probability. They considered the problem of how many times one must throw a pair of dice before one expects a double six, and how to divide the stakes if a game of dice is incomplete.

His last work was on the cycloid, finding its center of gravity, surface area of its solid of revolution, and its arc length.

Despite health problems, he worked intensely on scientific and mathematical questions until 1654. Sometime around then he nearly lost his life in an accident. He underwent a religious experience and he devoted his life to Christianity. Pascal's most famous work in philosophy is a collection of personal thoughts on human suffering and faith in God that contains Pascal's wager: "If God does not exist, one will lose nothing by believing in him, while if he does exist, one will lose everything by not believing."