[excerpt from Alien Encounters by Gavin Hitchcock]
Scene: The spirit of BLAISE PASCAL in the afterlife. He crosses the stage again, stopping halfway. He is wearing a halo. Initially speaking of Antoine Arnauld (aged French theologian and mathematician)
PASCAL [to audience ]
Poor Arnauld! I really thought at one stage that he was beginning to see the light about nothing being less than nothing. The fiendish paradoxes he fell into would quickly have persuaded most men to turn their minds to more acceptable matters. But he cannot refrain from controversy and disputation. Whether it be in the realm of religion or science, in contrast to me after my conversion, he takes all as God’s truth and the province of man’s reason. Whether it be the casuistry of mathematicians or Jesuit theologians, once he is provoked, he will perpetuate the quarrel tirelessly. “Rest?” he says – “I have all eternity in which to rest!”
[laughs gently ]
Little does he know! We have far more to think and talk about in this real life than in the shadow-life on earth. I have discovered more treasures, nay, more worlds of treasure-troves, in my moments since I departed the earthly life than I dreamt of in all my years on earth. The difference is that now it is not a struggle – there is no despair, no malice or bad humour. And no stomach pains, headaches and toothache! But Arnauld thrives on the struggle, so let him fight on to the death!
At least the Jesuits will never have a hair of him, but it appears that the mathematicians have finally won him over. He is ardently courting these ghostly numbers less than nothing, so amused by what he calls their elegant manners and their usefulness that he will excuse their eccentric behaviour, and overlook those intolerable contradictions they bring along with them. He thinks they can be tamed and domesticated within the great house of mathematics! He says this doctrine of negative numbers will soon be taught in all the Universities of France and Germany – and even in England… a rampant heresy indeed!
And yet – I must confess, there is a wonderful nobility in it… When I look back on it now, I can only admire the boundless courage of the mathematicians that drives them on in their quest to grasp the enigmas, to grapple with the Infinite, to gird their loins and face unflinchingly the vast, turbulent sea of Nature’s riddles! Sometimes I feel myself drawn to ponder upon some of these riddles – I feel the old excitement growing… and then I have to remind myself that I once vowed to renounce mathematics forever and study the higher things alone. But, strange to relate, one earthly night long after that, God in his mercy permitted me to suffer a terrible toothache, and while thus robbed of sleep I found myself indulging in some mathematical reveries; suddenly I realized that my toothache was taken away! God himself was nudging me into eight days of wonderful discoveries in the roulette curve which we call the cycloid. I published that work, but under a pseudonym: I called myself Amos Dettonville. It is an anagram, of course – a permutation of the letters of my other pseudonym, Louis de Montalte. (That is, if you allow the “u” and “v” to be interchangeable!) Louis de Montalte was the name under which I wrote my so-called Provincial Letters – the bane of the Jesuits, and the talk of all France. Who would ever guess that the two authors were one and the same?!
AMOS DETTONVILLE LOUIS DE MONTALTE
You see, I did not want anyone accusing me of reverting to the folly of human science and philosophy. I felt guilty then, at my lapse into mathematics; now I see God’s compassion in it. Do you know that it was while reading those letters of Dettonville on the cycloid, that the great Leibniz had the light burst in upon him regarding his celebrated invention of the integral calculus? And do you know that I challenged the greatest mathematicians of Europe by having Dettonville offer a prize for the solution to certain problems by October of the same year? – 1658 I think it was! We caught two fish, Dettonville and I – a big one and a little one: John Wallis of Oxford, and an unwary Jesuit. Neither of them truly merited my prize, and all Europe wondered at the prodigious feats of the mysterious Dettonville!
I sometimes wonder what I might have accomplished in mathematics if I had devoted myself to it, instead of to the defence of the Christian faith. But God’s ways are just and right and past finding out, and earth’s journey but a moment. What I felt then, surely remains true: moral science will always make up for ignorance of physical science. However, I know now that the Creator takes profound pleasure in even the mathematical explorations of his children – but he will stop at no mercy, however severe, which will protect us from enslavement to an idolatrous passion. In my case, no doubt, mathematics would have ensnared my will, exhausted my reason, inflated my pride, and corrupted my love for God.
Now that I am blessedly free of that temptation, I wonder if the Lord will grant me to do some mathematics again, to His honour and glory?
May God enlighten you all on your way!