True story: Blaise Pascal was a freak. Take that as good or bad, I offer no judgment. It’s out there, I’m just saying, and the inner workings of his family couldn’t’ve helped. A 17th-century French math whiz, he also took time to philosophize, discover atmospheric pressure—he’s the one they named that unit of pressure, the Pascal, after—and do some heavy theological work—he’s also the eponym of Pascal’s Wager, that thing about why it makes sense to believe in God. The guy died youngish, at 39. At least once, he scammed his brother-in-law into lugging an inverted tube of toxic mercury up a mountain. And his sisters—I don’t know where to start with them.
So let’s face it, he was sickly and depressed. DSM-criteria depressed. True story two: At the age of 2, they thought his brain was too large for his skull, explaining the headaches, the mysterious spells, and that weird fontanel above his left eye. Turns out it was rickets, not big-brain. But that’s quibbling. He had father issues, we know that. It’s just standard fare anymore. And yes, he had mother issues too. Weaning was a big deal, very traumatic, especially with the wet nurse still tag-teaming. We’re saying now it’s explained by attachment theory, but in 17th-century Paris, who knew? Home life was grounds for depression, is the point.
And thus by way of set up.
Childhood moves ahead. It’s the 1630s. Pascal’s 12 and already some kind of genius. By then, mom’s dead, father’s working for the Feds, and one of his two sisters is devoted to him. (He told her his crippling “chronic pain” began when she got married, which I think was just a nice wedding day touch.) True (true-ish) story three: Dad walks in on Pascal drawing circles and triangles with charcoal. Dad says, “Hey, guy, what’s going on here?” Li’l P says, “Just working through the 30-second proposition of Euclid’s Book One.” Dad turns to the door with an eye roll, a Gallic hrruh hrruh, and that glint of confused half-disappointment, half-pride that parents are wont to have. “Whatever. But franks and quiche for dinner, make sure to wash your hands.”
Skip ahead a decade. The little math freak has been in and out of Paris for years. On one return he invents probability theory and tries to score with Sweden’s Queen Christina by sending her his new calculating machine. To which we say, Nice woo, Blaise. Also, he meets the elder Descartes. Has a snack. Mail-orders a new beret. And then starts thinking about how to piss off the church on a Monday but find religion on a Tuesday at—true story four—exactly 12:30 a.m.
First the Monday, which is about vacuum, and which required the complicity of that everyman of everymen, the brother-in-law.
Nature abhors a vacuum. God is nature. Ergo, God abhors a vacuum. We don’t know what the big deal is, why it’s so abhorrent. Hoover and Dirt Devil are multi-nationals these days and that’s something. But it was. Abhorrent. And Pascal said it existed, so he was going against the Church. It was a real two birds/one stone scenario, all things considered, because you get to bojangle the pope with this vacuum talk and you get to discover atmospheric pressure at the same time.
Because: he had brother-in-law Perier—though they called him Ralph, I think—take a mercury tube up a mountain, the puy-de-Dome. At the top, Ralph measures how far down the mercury sinks. “But why, why, why?” Ralph must be thinking. “Payback for the bachelor-party incident?” Well, no, garçon, funny as that was. It proves that the atmosphere has weight. The higher up you go, the less pressure, since there’s less air. So the mercury dip is different. And here’s the skinny, because when the mercury in the tube goes down (less air pressing down/in from outside the tube) because the pressure is different up there, there’s a vacuum left at the top of the tube. Because what’s in there? Nothing leaked into the tube, so what’s in that empty space, but this vacuum? Which Nature abhorred. But Pascal confirmed existed.
And then, alas, on to the metaphorical Tuesday, about the midnight conversion experience written down and—true story five—sewn into his jacket pocket where it remained for the rest of his years. Pascal’s back to moral (dare we say “family”?) values and from then on its God talk day and night. Does He exist, Mr. Passkle? You bet. How do you know? I know. But how do you know? It’s what I do.
All this while, notoriously, Pascal was a betting man—and there goes Pascal’s Wager, which famously came after the flop during an all-nighter of Left Bank Hold ‘Em. Pot odds here gave him a 3:1 on God’s existence, so you know he was all in. You might as well believe because there’s nil to lose and everything to gain, so things are looking good for our theological gambler. It’s really a fantastic way to add your fun with probability theory to a top-notch deity proof.
But here I almost forgot the rub, which was—true story six—that Pascal’s niece was miraculously (supernaturally!) cured from a terminal ailment by a thorn from the Crown of Thorns, the thorn then in residence at his other sister’s convent. That’s weird for a handful of reasons and casts the sisters in an even shadier light. So, yeah, it’s no wonder we’re on the outs with France. Because how do you deal with it all sans judgment?