Blaise Pascal, anonymous portrait, 17th century.
Blaise Pascal (1623-62) was a brilliant child prodigy, who went on to become one of the greatest mathematicians and physicists of the seventeenth century. His scientific work contributed to the fields of fluid mechanics and the study of pressure and the vacuum. He invented a mechanical calculator, called the Pascaline: he himself built several of them. He also wrote on projective geometry and probability, and his correspondence with Pierre de Fermat on this latter subject has been particularly influential in the development of economics and other sciences.
Pascal is also a major figure in French literature and philosophy: his famous Pensées were assembled posthumously, from fragments of a planned Defense of the Christian Religion, left incomplete at his death at age 39. After a near-death experience in 1654, Pascal became associated with the Jansenist movement at Port-Royal in France. Adopting an ascetic lifestyle, he wrote eloquently about the insoluble paradoxes of the human condition, blending stoic and skeptical arguments to bring his readers to a point of confusion and despair, at which they would accept his famous wager and embrace God.
Pascal was scornful of his contemporary Descartes, writing in his Pensées that Descartes was “inutile et incertain” (useless and uncertain). He mocked Cartesian physics as a “novel” or “romance” of nature, “more or less similar to the story of Don Quixote.” Most of all, Pascal condemned Descartes for what he judged to be a purely opportunistic theological engagement: “I cannot pardon Descartes; he would have liked, in all his philosophy, to do without God; but he couldn’t prevent himself from granting him a flick to put the world in motion; after that, he no longer has anything to do with God.”
Toulouse, Archevêché, via Wikimedia commons. Quotations are from Pascal’s Pensées