Pascal: A Literary Scientist


We have to pause in deep thought and awe when it comes to an exceptional genius who successfully combined science, literature, and religious thinking; a man who had significant scientific contributions, as well as remarkable literary creativity, leaving this world at the young age of thirty-nine. He was the scientist, writer and French intellectual Blaise Pascal (1623–1662).

Pascal lived a short life; albeit full of success. Pascal’s father was an eminent judge, who was intellectual and interested in science; he was, thus, keen to offer his children a proper education. Pascal stood out as a mathematical and geometrical prodigy since he was eleven years old; however; his father’s priority was to teach him Greek and Latin, so he attempted to discourage him from getting immersed in Mathematics and Geometry. Nevertheless, Pascal challenged his father that he would learn the two languages beside the two fields he loved and exceled at, and he won the challenge.

When Pascal was fifteen years old, he published a research about cones, which amazed everyone who read it because of its accuracy; Renee Descartes, the eminent French philosopher and mathematician, actually thought that Pascal’s father was the one who wrote it, not Pascal himself. Pascal’s real launch was at the age of nineteen, in 1642, when he produced the first version of the mechanical calculator, deriving its name “the Pascaline” from his family’s name.

Despite its genius simplicity when it comes to operating it, this machine was very expensive to manufacture at the time. Pascal, thus, worked throughout the following ten years to develop it, producing about twenty versions of it in attempts to lower its cost and making it available for everyone. The Pascaline is considered the foundation for the development of the calculator that we know today.

Pascal is also the inventor of “Pascal’s Triangle”, where each number represents the sum of the two numbers above it; the Triangle is the development of previous researches by scientists who preceded him. He is also the founder of “Pascal’s Law” in physics, which states that if you shed additional vertical pressure on a trapped liquid, then this pressure affects all the liquid’s particles and in every direction equally; this law led to the invention of the hydraulic pressure machine, drag loads, and weight lifting machines. Moreover, the pressure unit in the international measurement system is called the “Pascal Unit”; there is also a computer programming language called the “Pascal Language”.

In 1645, when Pascal was 31 years old, he was in a coma for two whole weeks as a result of an accident; when he regained consciousness, he decided to change his life. Indeed, Pascal dedicated the last eight years of his life to religious devotion, which took a turn to the extreme when he declared his conviction of Jansenism, a Catholic theological movement that originated from the work of the Dutch theologian Cornelius Jansen.

The theological center of the movement was the convent of Port-Royal Abbey, Paris, where Pascal retreated for certain periods every year, being influenced by the ideas circulating within the sanctuary’s wall. These ideas directly affected the intellectual and philosophical content of Pascal’s unique literary works: Pensées (Thoughts), and Lettres provinciales (Provincial Letters). Curiously, these two works were compiled from scattered scraps and published after Pascal’s death.

Pascal never witnessed his works’ success, nor the infinite number of researches and literary analysis centered on them for four centuries to come. To this day, these two works are taught in French language sections in numerous universities around the world. It is worth mentioning that a distinguished university in Pascal’s birthplace, Clermont–Ferrand, is named after him—Université Blaise Pascal.

Pascal suffered for many years from a disease physicians of his time could not identify or cure. He suffered a mixture of severe headache and stomach ache, accompanied with cramps in the extremities, which sometimes went so far as paralysis that crippled his legs, forcing him to use crutches to move since he was just twenty-four years old. In August 1662, Pascal’s condition worsened until he was unable to move at all; he continued to suffer until he eventually took his last breath on the morning of 19 August.

Blaise Pascal…defeated by illness then death; yet, celebrated in the realm of science, and thus, immortalized.

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