Monday, November 23

Pascal's Achievement

Blaise Pascal was a genuine a Renaissance man. He was a prominent mathematician, physicist, inventor, and philosopher. He made important contributions to geometry, calculus, and developed the theory of probability. In physics, Pascal's Law is the basis for all modern hydraulic operations. When he was still a teenager he invented the first mechanical calculator. He even created the theoretical basis for a computer language--known as Pascal—long before the technology was available to use it.

Pascal was born in Clermont-Ferrand in 1623, and his family settled in Paris in 1629. Under the tutelage of his father, Pascal soon proved himself a mathematical prodigy, and at the age of 16 he formulated one of the basic theorems of projective geometry, known as Pascal's theorem and described in his Essay on Conics. He proved by experimentation in 1648 that the level of the mercury column in a barometer is determined by an increase or decrease in the surrounding atmospheric pressure rather than by a vacuum, as previously believed. This discovery verified the hypothesis of the Italian physicist Evangelista Torricelli concerning the effect of atmospheric pressure on the equilibrium of liquids.

Six years later, in conjunction with the French mathematician Pierre de Fermat, Pascal formulated the mathematical theory of probability, which has become important in such fields as actuarial, mathematical, and social statistics and as a fundamental element in the calculations of modern theoretical physics. Pascal's other important scientific contributions include the derivation of Pascal's law or principle, which states that fluids transmit pressures equally in all directions, and his investigations in the geometry of infinitesimals. His methodology reflected his emphasis on empirical experimentation as opposed to analytical, a priori methods, and he believed that human progress is perpetuated by the accumulation of scientific discoveries resulting from such experimentation.

On this day in 1654 Pascal underwent a dramatic conversion experience. Afterward, he became a part of the Jansenist community at Port Royal, where he led a rigorously ascetic life until his death eight years later. The Jansenists were reformers within the Catholic Church who sought to bring a kind of Protestant theological emphasis to the church without disrupting its liturgy or hierarchy. The movement was founded by the Flemish theologian and bishop, Cornelis Jansen, whose ideas were summarized in the treatise Augustinus--a profoundly orthodox interpretation of Augustine's Biblical worldview.

Under the sway of this teaching, Pascal wrote his famous Lettres Provinciales, in which he attacked the anti-reform Catholics--and especially the Jesuits--for their attempts to reconcile humanistic naturalism with Christianity. He also wrote a defense of the faith, Apologie de la Religion Chrétienne in preparation for his magnum opus, Pensées sur la Religion. In the Pensées, Pascal attempted to explain and justify the difficulties of human life by the doctrine of original sin, and he contended that revelation can be comprehended only by faith, which in turn is justified by revelation.

A genius, yielded to the purposes of Christ, Pascal was one of the most remarkable men ever to grace the church.

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