From binomial coefficients to Jesuit scolding

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From binomial coefficients to Jesuit scolding
From binomial coefficients to Jesuit scolding

From binomial coefficients to Jesuit scolding

A biography about Blaise Pascal (1623 -1662) seems to have been overdue. The last work about him appeared in 1986 (FrancisX. J. Coleman: "Neither angel nor beast"); two works attracted attention, which, however, are limited to Pascal's Christian consciousness and his knowledge of God.

Today's high school student meets BlaisePascal with the calculation rule of "Pascal's triangle", from which the coefficients of the development of (a+b) are derived. The physics student learns him as a pioneer of hydrostatics, who recognized the law of communicating tubes, was the first to use a barometer to measure altitude and after whom the unit of pressure is named today. Mathematicians honor him as the founder of projective geometry, as one of the creators of probability calculus and combinatorics, and also - alongside Newton and Leibniz - as a co-developer of differential and integral calculus. In philosophy, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche refer to him. In France, however, he is regarded above all as the greatest religious modern thinker and the greatest writer of classical prose.

In accordance with the view customary in the country, the biography of the Frenchman Jacques Attali - originally published in 2000 - is primarily devoted to the intellectual, political and religious aspects of Pascal's life and work. The economist Attali, who was born in Algiers, became known and prominent as an advisor to French President François Mitterrand before he retired from the Élysée Palace and other top offices and finally devoted himself entirely to writing philosophical and biographical books.

On the other hand, we only get to know marginally about Pascal's mathematical and physical work, which seems to be the most important to us today. While the Thirty Years' War was already raging in Central Europe, the father, through his friend Father Marin Mersenne, gave the child prodigy access to the newly founded Academy in Paris, where he was introduced to the circles around Descartes and Fermat. In September 1639, the 16-year-old took the podium himself and gave a lecture on conic sections. But at that time scientific publishing was still unusual. Only a few fragments remain of Pascal's first stroke of genius, which were not published until a century later by Leibniz.

At just 18 years old, Pascal is once again amazing the world. He builds a calculator that can add up six-digit numbers and deals with the old riddle of the vacuum. Building on preliminary work by Evangelista Torricelli (1608 – 1647), he demonstrated in a public experiment that the height of the mercury column in a glass tube depends only on the weight of the air above the arrangement and that there is a vacuum in the empty space of the tube. The ancient "horror vacui" is done with. Pascal published these experiments and thoughts in 1653 in a paper on air pressure and hydrostatics.

Soon after, he becomes involved in a church feud. He vehemently took the side of the Dutch reform bishop Cornelius Jansen (1585 – 1638), who represented a doctrine of grace based on Augustine. In a series of satirical polemic pamphlets, which were printed anonymously as "Letters to the Province" under conspiratorial circumstances, he tried to ridicule the Jesuits. The 18 letters are still considered a masterpiece of French prose, primarily because of their clarity and precision. Attali guides the reader through the entanglements of this church struggle, which was always dangerous for Pascal and in which today one can hardly understand what it was all about.

It's unbelievable how parallel to these disputes Pascal continued to advance his ideas on probability calculus, for example in an exchange of letters with a judge in Toulouse named Pierre de Fermat (1601 -1665), whom posterity recognizes as mathematics. Only a few letters from this have survived.

What surprised me in Attali's biography was that Pascal was also considered to be the founder of the first local public transport system. Together with some nobles, he founded a partnership that maintained a stagecoach line in Paris for the less well-off. The company was so successful that other lines soon followed, and it lasted for 17 years. Pascal bequeathed his earnings from the business to the poor.

When the constantly ailing Pascal was more and more often bedridden and constantly suffering from severe pain, the doctors told him until the last few weeks of his life that he was actually not missing anything and that he should drink whey. He died at the age of 39 in the middle of working on a major treatise on the vindication of Christianity.

Attali opens up the negligent handling of Pascal's estate in sometimes shocking details. All the same: His main religious work, the "Pensées", was transformed by friends from a mountain of around a thousand pieces of paper into a printable book, even if some editions were initially heavily cleaned up. But many of his mathematical writings, which Pascal did not publish but only communicated to some researchers such as Huygens or Leibniz by letter, were regarded by the executors as unimportant, sloppy or simply thrown away, including the correspondence with Fermat.

Jacques Attali is a diligent and in every sense exhaustive biographer: he confronts the reader with too many characters and quotes in excess from countless writings. Unfortunately, there is no subject index. Nevertheless, Blaise Pascal is visible as a person who had a huge impact on his time in several parallel existences: as a physicist and mathematician rather in secret, but loved and feared as a controversial polemicist, who - mostly ill, melancholic and ascetic - dedicated himself above all to the cause of faith. It seems to me like an irony of fate that posterity remembered him very differently.

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