Sunday, September 15, 2013

Consider Pascal

     Mathematician Blaise Pascal (France, 1623-1662) is known for his explorations with computing machines, for his ideas concerning probabilities, for trying to make rational a decision to believe in God and eternal life, for his explorations of the cycloid and the limacon (curves generated by rolling circles) and a host of other topics.
     I was introduced to Melbourne poet, novelist, and mathematician (he teaches at Victoria University of Technology), Tom Petsinis by South-African editor of Poetry-International, Liesl Jobson.  Here from Petsinis' collection, Naming the Number (Penguin, 1998) is "Pascal's Tooth," (a poem also available at the Poetry-International site).  In the grip of severe pain, Petsinis ponders the ideas of Pascal.  

     Pascal’s tooth     by Tom Petsinis

     Renounce mathematics. I vowed again
     To set my faith on paradox, not proof –-
     Yet spirit could not numb a wisdom tooth
     Tormenting me with exponential pain:
     I relented, soothed by a circle’s roll.
     Released from my crucifixion to bone
     I embraced the horizon, heaven’s dome,
     The cycloid of an inviolate soul.
     For weeks I flew, forgetful of my sin,
     Pursuing figures with ideal curves
     To wonderful ends, strengthening my nerves
     For the penitential line back to Him.
     Renounce mathematics! I found the truth,
     Exploring with my tongue the rotting root.

Petsinis also is author of the novel, The French Mathematician (Berkley, 2000), about Evariste Galois.

Pascal is perhaps most celebrated in a wager that he developed to rationalize belief in God.  Here is one of its versions:

      from Pensèes     by Blaise Pascal (France, 1623-1662)

     Belief is a wise wager.  Granted that
     faith cannot be proved, what harm
     will come to you if you gamble
     on its truth and it proves false?
     . . . If you gain, you gain all;
     if you lose,
     you lose

     Wager, then, without
     hesitation, that
     He exists.

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