This note accompanies the follow episode(s):
The Writer’s Almanac for June 19, 2017: Yellow Lab Outside the Coffee Shop

June 19, 2017: birthday: Blaise Pascal

It’s the birthday of mathematician and mystic Blaise Pascal (books by this author), born in Clermont, France (1623). He was homeschooled by his father, a mathematician who believed that children should absorb knowledge naturally rather than by studying. So he didn’t go to school in his youth, but he worked on geometric problems in the yard, while playing with sticks. When he was 12, he showed his father that the sum of the angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles. His father was shocked that he had figured this out on his own, and invited him to join in scientific discussions with other mathematicians. At 16, he published an article on the geometric properties of cones, and a few years later, he invented the first mechanical calculator.

Pascal’s family was not religious, but in 1646, he met two Christian mystics who cared for his father during an illness. They converted Pascal, and he converted his family, but he continued working on scientific experiments, showing that a vacuum could exist in nature, and invented the mathematics of probability.

Then, one night in November of 1654, he experienced a divine vision, which he called a “night of fire.” He wrote an account of the experience and sewed it into his coat lining to carry until his death. After that night, he decided to forget the world and everything except for God. He left Paris in 1655 and went to live in a convent. While living there, his niece was miraculously cured of an eye disease by touching a thorn from the crown of Jesus. He decided to write a book to convert skeptics to Christianity.

Pascal wrote a series of notes and fragments about his thoughts on religion, but he never completed the book. The notes were found after his death and published as Pensées (Thoughts, 1669). In that book, he describes his famous wager, arguing that if God does not exist, the skeptic loses nothing by believing in him; but if God does exist, the skeptic gains eternal life by believing in him. He also argued that it is the heart that experiences God, and not reason.

He wrote: “Man. What a novelty! What a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy. Judge of all things, imbecile worm of the earth; depositary of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error: the pride and refuse of the universe.”

Pascal also said, “Man is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity in which he is engulfed.”