Saturday, June 19, 2010


The thoughtful, wagering fellow above is one Blaise Pascal, born this day 1623 in Clermont-Ferrand, France. The son of a judge, his mother died at the age of 3, and at the age of 8 his widowed father moved the family to Paris. There the younger Pascal would begin to demonstrate the genius that made him famous. He was a bit of a prodigy, and a mathematical whiz kid. He wrote and essay on conics that was quite advanced for its time, and especially impressive considering he was only sixteen years old at the time. His father got a different job while in Paris that required him to do a lot of adding and subtracting (taxes), so the dutiful son Blaise (at the tender age of 19) invented a calculator to help the old man out. It was the first mechanical calculator of its kind, and it was duly named the Pascaline. However, it did not prove to be a commercial success, but Pascal would continue to improve his design, and eventually made twenty more of the machines. Pascal was more than just a math whiz, he invented the hydraulic press and the syringe. However, I mostly know him from my days as a confused philosophy student, when I was forced to read (I mean craved to read) his masterpiece the "Pensees." It was to have been a sustained examination and defense of the Christian religion, but it was left unfinished at his death. Nevertheless what was completed was brilliant. It has been called "the most eloquent book in French prose," and if you have ever read any French prose, you will understand what high praise that is. The most famous Pensee was the note to number 233, in which Pascal sets out his theory that would eventually be called Pascal's Wager. It states that reason can not determine the existence of god, but that a person should wager that god exists because living life as if god exists gives a person everything to gain, and nothing to lose. It might not be true, but that is the safe way to bet, is another way of summing it up. It is much deeper than that, and it has had its critics over the years, but when I first read it all those years ago it made a lot of sense to me. However, a few more years of study, and a doubting nature, eventually led me to reject Pascal's Wager. Hard to believe, but the man proposed a bet that even I can not accept. However, he was much, much more than the Wager that bears his name, and for all of those other contributions to the world of knowledge, Blaise Pascal (June 19th, 1623- August 19th, 1662 at the age of 39), you are my (298th) hero of the day.

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