Part one of the story of Pascal

Are you the sort of person who forms their opinions and their view of life more on the basis of received wisdom or more from your own experience?  Do you prefer to trust traditional thinking or do you prefer to go back to first principles, working things out for yourself?

This is the story of someone who was very definitely in the second camp.  The month of June marks the anniversary of his birth.

But I’ll begin his story with another question.  When was the world’s first bus service started?  Answer – 1662, in Paris.  A revolutionary concept, it ran successfully for seventeen years.  It was an idea that was two hundred years ahead of its time and both it and the life of its creator were a demonstration of the power of thinking for yourself.

Blaise Pascal died shortly after the service opened, at only thirty-nine years old.   But even after such a short life, he was already internationally famous as a scientific and mathematical genius.  Today, though, Pascal is probably best remembered for a book he never wrote.  All he left behind was bundles of paper, scribbled over, which were pieced together after his death and published under the title:  ‘The Thoughts of Pascal’.  They’ve been a best seller for three and a half centuries.

Another brick in the wall

As a child, Pascal had been home educated.  His father’s refusal to send his son to school was probably the best thing he ever did because the French education system at that time seems to have been designed to stop people thinking for themselves.  Everything relied on the authority of ancient Greek and Latin authors and children spent most of their time studying grammar and public speaking.  Even private conversations often had to be conducted in Latin.  It’s been calculated that subjects like history, geography, mathematics and French, between them, took up half an hour a day in the school timetable.

Philosophy, with its potential for creative thought, was kept within rigid tramlines and centred on Aristotle who had been dead for two millennia. A discipline like physics, which again was ruled by Aristotelian philosophy, was an optional extra and not a very popular one at that.

But Pascal was keen to use his own brain and to try things out for himself.  You read a lot of seventeenth-century French books and they sound like they were written in the seventeenth-century.  You read Pascal and he sounds like he was writing last Thursday.  Where they sound like each other, he sounds like himself.

A prodigy

The story goes that when he was twelve, Pascal discovered on his own the first thirty-two propositions of the ancient Greek mathematician, Euclid.  According to the official family biography, his father at this point was ‘frightened out of his wits by his son’s genius’ and went round to a friend’s house where he lost the power of movement and stood sobbing.

At nineteen, Pascal published his first mathematical work – on projective geometry.  He then took a break and invented a calculating machine which, like the buses, was a couple of hundred years ahead of its time and has been called the ancestor of modern computers.

A legacy

At twenty-five, Pascal was building on Torricelli’s experiments with the vacuum.  This young upstart was helping to overturn, once again, Aristotelian principles, as if they were a trifle.  Traditionalists argued with him in long open letters.  One of them, a Jesuit priest called Père Noël – Father Christmas – suffered a typical fate as Pascal’s massive intellect took him apart in an answering letter using a mixture of limpid thought and biting sarcasm.

Between 1646 and 1659, a number of experiments and a ton of mathematical papers made Pascal internationally renowned.  He corresponded with Christopher Wren and Leibniz, invented the syringe, broke new ground in probability theory with the so-called ‘Pascal’s triangle’ (which influenced the development of modern economics and of computer search engines), possibly anticipated Calculus theory twenty-five years before Newton got there and ran Europe-wide mathematics quizzes in which he would award himself first prize after ridiculing anybody else who had been daft enough to enter.

A hint of things to come

But beneath all the arrogance, something else was stirring deep inside Pascal.  Something that would cement his fame for ever.

See part two:  The Night of Fire