Jun 192013



Today is the birthday (1623) of Blaise Pascal who gives the lie to the old phrase, “jack of all trades, master of none.” He was brilliant in so many spheres including mathematics, physics, philosophy, theology, and literature, as well as an ingenious inventor, using his abstract theories for concrete applications.  His work still resonates throughout our lives, whether you are jacking up a car with a hydraulic jack, internally basting a turkey with a syringe, stepping on the brakes, or simply eating olive oil made in a hydraulic press.  He was a thinking person’s thinker, and greatly to be admired.  Even if you have never heard of him before, he has touched your life in many ways.

Pascal was born in Clermont-Ferrand which sits on the plain of Limagne in the Massif Central, in central France.  It is the prefecture of the Puy-de-Dôme department within the province of Auvergne.  Pascal’s mother died when he was 3 years old, and his father, Étienne Pascal, who had an interest in science and mathematics decided to teach Blaise at home because he showed extraordinary intellectual ability at a very early age. By the age of 16 Pascal had produced his “Essai pour les coniques” (“Essay on Conics”) which includes his proof for what is now called Pascal’s theorem (if you are not happy with mathematics you don’t need to know).  This work was so precocious that when it was shown to René Descartes he scoffed and would not believe it had been written by a teenager.

After an unfortunate tussle with Cardinal Richlieu had been resolved, the cardinal appointed Pascal’s father as king’s commissioner of taxes in Rouen in 1639. Because of numerous uprisings in the city the tax records were a complete disaster. In 1642, in an effort to ease his father’s endless, exhausting calculations, and recalculations, of taxes owed and paid, Pascal, 18 years old, constructed a mechanical calculator capable of addition and subtraction, called Pascal’s calculator or the Pascaline —  first step on the road to more advanced calculating machines, and ultimately the computer.

Pascal’s contributions to mathematics over the course of his life are staggering.  There’s his many uses of the so-called Pascal’s Triangle (see illustration), which you may have encountered in high school math.  There’s his foundational work in probability theory, that he partnered on with Pierre de Fermat, and which produced key concepts (such as the “weighted average”) that are fundamental to the computational aspects of modern economics and social science.  And, dear to my heart, he showed that no matter how rigorous a proof is in mathematics it ultimately rests on propositions that cannot be proven and must be accepted on faith alone because they are “self evident.” Mathematics, the deity of all science, is grounded in faith !!!!

Besides work in mathematics, Pascal made major contributions to physical science.  He finally overturned the assertion by Aristotle that vacuums cannot exist, building on the work of Galileo and Torricelli, and proposed methods for creating vacuum pumps.  He established a fundamental principle of the transmission of pressure in fluids now known as Pascal’s Law, which led him to develop hydraulic systems such as the hydraulic lift and the syringe.

As if all of this were not enough, Pascal in later life made significant inroads into theology, philosophy, and French literature due to a radical personal change in his life.  On 23 November 1654, between 10:30 and 12:30 at night, Pascal had an intense religious vision and immediately recorded the experience in a brief note to himself which began: “Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and the scholars…” and concluded by quoting Psalm 119:16: “I will not forget thy word. Amen.” He sewed this document into his coat and always transferred it when he changed clothes. A servant discovered it only by chance after his death. Subsequent to his vision he abandoned mathematics and science, and devoted himself to philosophical writings, culminating in Pensées which is widely considered to be a masterpiece of reasoning as well as a landmark in French prose. In Pensées, Pascal surveys several philosophical paradoxes: infinity and nothing, faith and reason, soul and matter, death and life, meaning and vanity — culminating in Pascal’s Wager (the idea that it is better to believe in God than not because the rewards are so great if God exists, and you lose nothing if he does not).

Pascal’s last major achievement, returning to his mechanical genius, was inaugurating what was perhaps the first bus line, moving passengers within Paris in a carriage with many seats. He died in 1662 at the age of 39 in intense pain caused by a malignant tumor that spread to his brain.  Such immense accomplishments in such a short span.

I had to think long and hard about a recipe suitable for the memory of Pascal.  After all, the syringe can be used for many things including cake decorating, squirting brandy into baked mince pies, internally basting turkey meat before roasting, and, with the aid of tubing and gelling agents, making all manner of wild and whacky vegetable forms of “spaghetti.” Home hydraulic presses are now used to make fruit and vegetable juices of very high quality.  Vacuum cooking in the modern era has produced sous-vide ( French for “under vacuum”), a method of cooking food sealed in airtight bags, with the air pumped out, in a water bath for longer than normal cooking times—72 hours in some cases—at an accurately regulated temperature much lower than normally used for cooking, typically around 55 °C (131 °F) to 60 °C (140 °F). This method produces incredibly tender and juicy meats.  All these culinary endeavors rely on Pascal’s work.  But most of them are not really for the average home cook, although some kits are available on the market (look up “molecular gastronomy”).  Instead I have chosen simplicity.

Pascal’s home town of Clermont-Ferrand is famous for its cheeses and its potatoes.  So here is a traditional potato gratinée from Clermont excerpted from Joël Robuchon’s Le Meilleur et le plus simple de la pomme de terre (The Best and Easiest Potatoes). The recipe and notes are verbatim (in translation).  You can substitute any good melting cheese for the Cantal.


Pommes de terre gratinées clermontoises

This recipe from the city of Clermont-Ferrand is made using the wonderful cheese that is called Cantal. The Auvergne, like Normandy, has three excellent cheeses. And in my opinion, along with those Norman cheeses, the Cantal, Fourme d’Ambert, and Saint-Nectaire cheeses of the Auvergne region are among the world’s finest.

Makes 4 or 5 servings.

2 to 2½ lbs. boiling potatoes (1 kg)
4 Tbsp. butter (50 g)
1¼ cups heavy cream (300 ml)
5 oz. Cantal cheese (150 g)
salt and pepper

Select potatoes that are all about the same size. Peel them and cook them whole in boiling, salted water
for 30 minutes.

Turn on the oven to 180°C (350°F). As soon as the potatoes are cooked, drain them and then dry them out slightly in the oven as it heats up.

Lay the potatoes out on a clean dish towel and, using the back of a big fork, flatten them slightly so that they resemble little cakes of soap.

Butter a baking dish and arrange the potatoes in it. Season them with salt, freshly ground pepper, and grated nutmeg.

Grate or crumble the cheese. Meanwhile, heat the cream to the simmering point and pour it over the potatoes. Sprinkle the cheese over all.

Set the pan in the hot oven and let it cook and brown, for 5 minutes or longer.

Serve the potatoes hot out of the oven as a side dish with roasted meat.