The 'mad' Egyptian scholar who proved Aristotle wrong

January 6, 2011

Ibn al-Haytham's 11th-century Book of Optics, which was published exactly 1000 years ago, is often cited alongside Newton's Principia as one of the most influential books in physics. Yet very little is known about the writer, considered by many to be the father of modern optics.

January's features a fanciful re-imagining of the 10-year period in the life of the medieval Muslim polymath, written by Los Angeles-based science writer Jennifer Ouellette.

The feature covers the time when al-Haytham -- banished from society and deprived of books -- came up with his revolutionary theories about the form and passage of light.

Ouellette brings detail to the skeletal plot of al-Haytham's life, from the awe and intimidation felt when he was summoned by the Caliph to use his engineering prowess to overcome the annual flooding of the Nile, to his fear of punishment when he realised he had failed in his task.

Al-Haytham was only able to escape a death sentence from the notoriously brutal Caliph by pretending he had gone mad. The Caliph instead incarcerated Al-Haytham, imprisoning him under house arrest to a cell. Confined and alone, it was here that Al-Haytham carried out the work that was to make him famous.

In 11th-century Egypt, Aristotle's ancient thought that visible objects and our own eyes emit rays of light to enable our vision still held.

Ouellette imagines al-Haytham lying alone in his darkened room questioning why the objects in the room are not emitting light and asking 'Is it possible that the ancients were mistaken?'

The question providing the crux, al-Haytham was spurred into experimental action with the candles and copper in his bare room to conclude that there is no mysterious "form" that all objects emit; rather there are sources of primary light that are reflected by other objects.

As Ouellette writes, "This is a work of fiction – a fanciful re-imagining of a 10-year period in the life of Ibn al-Haytham, considered by many historians to be the father of modern optics. Living at the height of the golden age of Arabic science, al-Haytham developed an early version of the scientific method 200 years before scholars in Western Europe."

Released from prison after the Caliph's death, Al-Haytham (AD 965-1040) went on to make contributions to astronomy, mathematics, engineering and medicine, as well as physics. But it his seven-volume Book of Optics, which he wrote while imprisoned, that remain his most famous contributions to science, covering visual perception, psychology and physical optics.

Explore further: Arabic chemists from the 'Golden Age' given long overdue credit

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5 / 5 (11) Jan 06, 2011
Just imagine where we would be if politics and religion hadn't gotten in the way of science so many times in the past.
5 / 5 (9) Jan 06, 2011
Just imagine if the dark ages never set in; if the library of Alexandria was never destroyed, etc. We could be living happy lives past the age of 300 by now, gah!
5 / 5 (2) Jan 06, 2011
I'd be on a star ship doing warp 7 to Risa.
5 / 5 (2) Jan 06, 2011
I'd be on a star ship doing warp 7 to Risa.

I'd beat you there with my Quantum Slipstream Drive!
not rated yet Jan 07, 2011
I'd be on a star ship doing warp 7 to Risa.

I'd beat you there with my Quantum Slipstream Drive!

I will be using the QSD to spread copies of myself through the galaxy in all directions at the speed of light, with short delays in each system to construct new bodies (to set up shop) and new Drives to continue spreading ...
3 / 5 (4) Jan 07, 2011
You all are bunch of optimists... We would live in caves after 5th or 6th world war, starving and freezing our asses in nuclear winter. :-P
not rated yet Jan 07, 2011
@nevermark: Someone has been reading A.Reynolds?
not rated yet Jan 07, 2011
Poor bugger. We shall remember him :) and we shall overcome
5 / 5 (3) Jan 07, 2011
I read before that he was born in Iraq so I consulted Wikipedia to be sure and that is what it is said there:

"Alhazen was born in Basra, in the Iraq province of the Buyid Persian Empire. "

It is believed that he died in Cairo, Egypt and maybe that is why people think that he was an Egyptian.

He was an impressive intellectual and quite reminds us of Da Vinci.
not rated yet Jan 07, 2011
@nevermark: Someone has been reading A.Reynolds?

@wileruilaer, I hadn't but pulled up a list of Alastair Reynolds books on Amazon. Recommendations on a book to start?
not rated yet Jan 07, 2011
@nevermark: Well... all of them? Failing that, "House of Suns" covers your idea of cloned travel, and the "Revelation Space" trilogy is his masterpiece. ("Redemption Ark", "Absolution Gap". Trilogy works nicely with free-standing "Chasm City".) All of his books are excellent SF though, and not repetitive imo.

@others: Sorry if OT

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