Saturday, April 1, 2000
F A C T   F I L E

Blaise Pascal
By Illa Vij


THE Pascal’s Law, which most students are familiar with, became the basis of the invention of the syringe, the hydraulic press, the hydraulic jack and the hydraulic brake. Pascal also invented a triangle called Pascal’s triangle. This proved very useful in the study of probability.

To everyone’s amazement, Pascal at the age of 12 proved that the sum of three angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles. By the age of 16 he had written an essay on Conics. This dealt with a mathematical proof that had been merely suggested by mathematician Desargues. Pascal began where Desargues stopped, and published his essay. Later in 1645 he even invented a calculating machine which could do addition and subtraction. Based on this the first calculating machine was brought out by William Burrughs in 1892.

  Pascal was a mathematician, physicist, philosopher and a religious writer. Blaise Pascal was born in 1623, in France. He lost his mother at the age of three. Therefore, his father Etienne, resolved to be the father, mother and tutor of his children. Etienne had his own views on education. He did not believe in overloading his children and had his own plan to educate them. He wanted Blaise to first learn Latin, Greek, geography and history. He had decided to introduce Blaise to geometry only at the age of sixteen. But seeing the boy’s inclination and intellect, he let him further his progress in mathematics.

When Pascal experimented intensely with water and air pressure, he brought out the Pascal’s Law. It states "Pressure exerted at any place on fluid in a closed vessel is transmitted undiminished throughout this fluid and acts at right angles to all surfaces of the container."

In January 1646, Etienne Pascal was seriously injured and some pious workers assisted him and gave him first-aid. The Pascal family was deeply moved and Blaise immediately started the study of the Bible. He felt enthused with religious zeal, but this led to a conflict within himself — a conflict between science and religion.

Between 1648 and 1654, Pascal contributed immensely to scientific discovery and works. As time passed by he became more religiously inclined. On November 23, 1654, he experienced a vision related to religion. Immediately he wrote an account of the experience on a parchment. This parchment was sewn into his clothes. But Pascal could not renounce science. Anonymously, he challenged all mathematicians to solve a specific problem related to a special curve called cycloid. Entries from great mathematicians came but no one could match Pascal’s unsigned solutions. When his solution was published, it caused a sensation.

During his last days, Pascal wrote a philosophical essay Espirit de Ge ‘om’ etrie. Pascal even studied gambling as this stimulated his study of mathematical theories of chance. As a result of this he developed the arithmetical triangle, which is a capsule of the calculus of probabilities.

Pascal died at an early age of 39, in the year 1662. He has rightfully been called an extraordinary scientist. Modern-day calculators, airplane altimeters, hydraulic devices and many areas of geometry and statistics, can largely be attributed to his genius. Even students of philosophy study his works with great enthusiasm.


Pascal’s principle

ALSO called Pascal’s Law, in fluid (gas or liquid) mechanics, states that in a fluid at rest in a closed container a pressure change in one part is transmitted without loss to every portion of the fluid and to the walls of the container. The principle was first enunciated by the French scientist Blaise Pascal.

Pressure is equal to the force divided by the area on which it acts. According to Pascal’s principle, in a hydraulic system a pressure exerted on a piston produces an equal increase in pressure on another piston in the system. If the second piston has an area ten times that of the first, the force on the second piston is ten times greater, though the pressure is the same as that on the first piston. This effect is exemplified by the hydraulic press, based on Pascal’s principle, which is used in such applications as hydraulic brakes.

Pascal also discovered that the pressure at a point in a fluid at rest is the same in all directions; the pressure would be the same on all planes passing through a specific point. This fact is also known as Pascal’s principle, or law.

— Courtesy Encyclopaedia Britannica

An assessment

At once a physicist, a mathematician, an eloquent publicist in the Provinciales, and an inspired artist in the Apologie and in his private notes, Pascal was embarrassed by the very abundance of his talents. It has been suggested that it was his too concrete turn of mind that prevented his discovering the infinitesimal calculus; and in some of the Provinciales the mysterious relations of human beings with God are treated as if they were a geometrical problem. But these considerations are far outweighed by the profit that he drew from the multiplicity of his gifts. His religious writings are rigorous because of his scientific training; and his love of the concrete emerges no less from the stream of quotations in the Provinciales than from his determination to reject the vigorous method of attack that he had used so effectively in his Apologie.