Scientists



PASCAL
Blaise Pascal (1623 – 1662), was a French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer and Catholic philosopher. He was a child prodigy
who was educated by his father, a tax collector in Rouen. Pascal's earliest work was in the natural and applied sciences where he made
important contributions to the study of fluids, and clarified the concepts of pressure and vacuum by generalizing the work of Evangelista
Torricelli. Pascal also wrote in defense of the scientific method. In 1642, while still a teenager, he started some pioneering work on
calculating machines, and after three years of effort and 50 prototypes he invented the mechanical calculator. He built twenty of these
machines (called "Pascal's calculator" and later "pascaline") in the following ten years. Pascal was an important mathematician, helping
create two major new areas of research: he wrote a significant treatise on the subject of projective geometry at the age of sixteen, and
later corresponded with Pierre de Fermat on probability theory, strongly influencing the development of modern economics and social science.
Following Galileo and Torricelli, in 1646 he refuted Aristotle's followers who insisted that nature abhors a vacuum. Pascal's results caused
many disputes before being accepted.
His father died in 1651. Following a mystical experience in late 1654, he had his "second conversion", abandoned his scientific work, and
devoted himself to philosophy and theology. His two most famous works date from this period: the Lettres provinciales and the Pensees, the
former set in the conflict between Jansenists and Jesuits. In this year, he also wrote an important treatise on the arithmetical triangle.
Between 1658 and 1659 he wrote on the cycloid and its use in calculating the volume of solids.
Pascal had poor health especially after his eighteenth year and his death came just two months after his 39th birthday.
Pascal was born in ClermontFerrand; he lost his mother at the age of three. His father, Etienne Pascal, who also had an interest in science
and mathematics, was a local judge and member of the "Noblesse de Robe". In 1631, five years after the death of his wife, Etienne Pascal moved
with his children to Paris. The newly arrived family soon hired Louise Delfault, a maid who eventually became an instrumental member of the
family. Etienne, who never remarried, decided that he alone would educate his children, for they all showed extraordinary intellectual ability,
particularly his son Blaise. The young Pascal showed an amazing aptitude for mathematics and science.
Particularly of interest to Pascal was a work of Desargues on conic sections. Following Desargues' thinking, the sixteenyearold Pascal
produced, as a means of proof, a short treatise on what was called the "Mystic Hexagram", Essai pour les coniques ("Essay on Conics") and
sent it – his first serious work of mathematics – to Pere Mersenne in Paris; it is known still today as Pascal's theorem. It states that if
a hexagon is inscribed in a circle (or conic) then the three intersection points of opposite sides lie on a line (called the Pascal line).
Pascal's work was so precocious that Descartes was convinced that Pascal's father had written it. When assured by Mersenne that it was, indeed,
the product of the son not the father, Descartes dismissed it with a sniff: "I do not find it strange that he has offered demonstrations about
conics more appropriate than those of the ancients," adding, "but other matters related to this subject can be proposed that would scarcely
occur to a sixteenyearold child".
Pascal continued to influence mathematics throughout his life. His "Treatise on the Arithmetical Triangle" of 1653 described a convenient
tabular presentation for binomial coefficients, now called "Pascal's triangle".
In 1654, prompted by a friend interested in gambling problems, he corresponded with Fermat on the subject, and from that collaboration was
born the mathematical theory of probabilities. The friend was the Chevalier de Mere, and the specific problem was that of two players who
want to finish a game early and, given the current circumstances of the game, want to divide the stakes fairly, based on the chance each has
of winning the game from that point. From this discussion, the notion of expected value was introduced. Pascal later (in the Pensees) used a
probabilistic argument, Pascal's Wager, to justify belief in God and a virtuous life. The work done by Fermat and Pascal into the calculus of
probabilities laid important groundwork for Leibniz' formulation of the infinitesimal calculus. After a religious experience in 1654, Pascal
mostly gave up work in mathematics.
Pascal's work in the fields of the study of hydrodynamics and hydrostatics centered on the principles of hydraulic fluids. His inventions
include the hydraulic press (using hydraulic pressure to multiply force) and the syringe. He proved that hydrostatic pressure depends not on
the weight of the fluid but on the elevation difference. He demonstrated this principle by attaching a thin tube to a barrel full of water
and filling the tube with water up to the level of the third floor of a building. This caused the barrel to leak, in what became known as
Pascal's barrel experiment. By 1646, Pascal had learned of Evangelista Torricelli's experimentation with barometers. Having replicated an
experiment that involved placing a tube filled with mercury upside down in a bowl of mercury, Pascal questioned what force kept some mercury
in the tube and what filled the space above the mercury in the tube. At the time, most scientists contended that, rather than a vacuum, some
invisible matter was present. This was based on the Aristotelian notion that creation was a thing of substance, whether visible or invisible;
and that this substance was forever in motion. Furthermore, "Everything that is in motion must be moved by something," Aristotle declared.
Therefore, to the Aristotelian trained scientists of Pascal's time, a vacuum was an impossibility. How so? As proof it was pointed out:
– Light passed through the socalled "vacuum" in the glass tube.
– Aristotle wrote how everything moved, and must be moved by something.
– Therefore, since there had to be an invisible "something" to move the light through the glass tube, there was no vacuum in the tube. Not in
the glass tube or anywhere else. Vacuums – the absence of any and everything – were simply an impossibility.
Following more experimentation in this vein, in 1647 Pascal produced "New Experiments with the Vacuum", which detailed basic rules describing
to what degree various liquids could be supported by air pressure. It also provided reasons why it was indeed a vacuum above the column of
liquid in a barometer tube.
On 19 September 1648, after many months of Pascal's friendly but insistent prodding, Florin Perier, husband of Pascal's elder sister, was
finally able to carry out the factfinding mission vital to Pascal's theory. The account, written by Perier, reads: "The weather was chancy
last Saturday...[but] around five o'clock that morning...the PuydeDome was visible...so I decided to give it a try. Several important people
of the city of Clermont had asked me to let them know when I would make the ascent...I was delighted to have them with me in this great work..."
at eight o'clock we met in the gardens of the Minim Fathers, which has the lowest elevation in town....First I poured sixteen pounds of
quicksilver...into a vessel...then took several glass tubes...each four feet long and hermetically sealed at one end and opened at the
other...then placed them in the vessel [of quicksilver]...I found the quick silver stood at 26" and 3? lines above the quicksilver in the
vessel...I repeated the experiment two more times while standing in the same spot...[they] produced the same result each time... "I attached
one of the tubes to the vessel and marked the height of the quicksilver and...asked Father Chastin, one of the Minim Brothers...to watch if
any changes should occur through the day...Taking the other tube and a portion of the quick silver...I walked to the top of PuydeDome,
about 500 fathoms higher than the monastery, where upon experiment...found that the quicksilver reached a height of only 23" and 2 lines...I
repeated the experiment five times with care...each at different points on the summit...found the same height of quicksilver...in each case..."
Pascal replicated the experiment in Paris by carrying a barometer up to the top of the bell tower at the church of SaintJacquesdelaBoucherie,
a height of about fifty meters. The mercury dropped two lines.
In the face of criticism that some invisible matter must exist in Pascal's empty space, Pascal, in his reply to Estienne Noel, gave one of
the seventeenth century's major statements on the scientific method, which is a striking anticipation of the idea popularised by Karl Popper
that scientific theories are characterised by their falsifiability: "In order to show that a hypothesis is evident, it does not suffice that
all the phenomena follow from it; instead, if it leads to something contrary to a single one of the phenomena, that suffices to establish its
falsity. "His insistence on the existence of the vacuum also led to conflict with other prominent scientists”, including Descartes.
Pascal introduced a primitive form of roulette and the roulette wheel in the 17th century in his search for a perpetual motion machine.
In honor of his scientific contributions, the name Pascal has been given to the SI unit of pressure, to a programming language, and Pascal's
law (an important principle of hydrostatics), and as mentioned above, Pascal's triangle and Pascal's wager still bear his name.
Pascal's development of probability theory was his most influential contribution to mathematics. Originally applied to gambling, today it is
extremely important in economics, especially in actuarial science. John Ross writes, "Probability theory and the discoveries following it
changed the way we regard uncertainty, risk, decisionmaking, and an individual's and society's ability to influence the course of future
events". However, it should be noted that Pascal and Fermat, though doing important early work in probability theory, did not develop the
field very far. Christiaan Huygens, learning of the subject from the correspondence of Pascal and Fermat, wrote the first book on the subject.
Later figures who continued the development of the theory include Abraham de Moivre and PierreSimon Laplace.
