Alhazen: the Father of Optics and the First Scientist

· Muslim Heritage
Authors
Anyone who has ever used vision glasses or contact lenses, taken a picture with a camera or watched television has a reason to be thankful to the Father of Optics, Alhazen.Latinized as Alhazen, in full, Abū Alī al-Ḥasan ibn al-Haytham, born c. 965, Basra, Iraq, died c. 1040, Cairo, Egypt, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, “mathematician and astronomer who made significant contributions to the principles of optics and the use of scientific experiments.”

David L. Shenkenberg writes in an article titled, ‘Before Newton, there was Alhazen,’ for Photonix.com:

“A millennium ago, an Arab scientist authored more than 100 works on optics, astronomy, mathematics and religious philosophy. Although he was arguably one of the greatest scientists of all time, his name is little known to people living in Western countries today. “

If we read all the works of Alhazen, Roger Bacon from 14th century and Sir Isaac Newton side by side, we may realize that a lot of work attributed to Sir Isaac Newton truly belongs to Alhazen. The paradigm of two civilizations, arising from the politics of crusades, deprived Alhazen of these honors. The time is now ripe to begin the study of the works of these three gifted giants, who were standing on the shoulders of prior giants, side by side, to have a better understanding of the history of science.

Alhazen also described the refraction and the dispersion of light into its component colors, ideas credited to Isaac Newton. “Certainly in the field of optics, Newton himself stood on the shoulders of a giant who lived 700 years earlier,” said Jim Al-Khalili, a physics professor at the University of Surrey in the UK. Khalili recently narrated “The Empire of Reason,” about history of science that is part of a three-part series on medieval Islamic scientists.

Nobel Laureate in physics, Dr. Abdus Salam wrote:

“Ibn-al-Haitham (Alhazen, 965–1039 CE) was one of the greatest physicists of all time. He made experimental contributions of the highest order in optics. He enunciated that a ray of light, in passing through a medium, takes the path which is the easier and ‘quicker’. In this he was anticipating Fermat’s Principle of Least Time by many centuries. He enunciated the law of inertia, later to become Newton’s first law of motion. Part V of Roger Bacon’s ‘Opus Majus’ is practically an annotation to Ibn al Haitham’s Optics.”

The punch line here is, “Part V of Roger Bacon’s ‘Opus Majus’ is practically an annotation to Ibn al Haitham’s Optics.” This is the theme of this knol to demonstrate a smooth transition of science from the Muslim era to European renaissance.

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It is appropriate to start with a quotation that has been mentioned in the summary of the summary of the article above also. It is worth repeating what Dr. Abdus Salam, Nobel Laureate in physics, wrote about Alhazen:
“Ibn-al-Haitham (Alhazen, 965–1039 CE) was one of the greatest physicists of all time. He made experimental contributions of the highest order in optics. He enunciated that a ray of light, in passing through a medium, takes the path which is the easier and ‘quicker’. In this he was anticipating Fermat’s Principle of Least Time by many centuries. He enunciated the law of inertia, later to become Newton’s first law of motion. Part V of Roger Bacon’s “Opus Majus” is practically an annotation to Ibn al Haitham’s Optics.”[1]
Rosanna Gorini writes:
“According to the majority of the historians al-Haytham was the pioneer of the modern scientific method. With his book he changed the meaning of the term optics and established experiments as the norm of proof in the field. His investigations are based not on abstract theories, but on experimental evidences and his experiments were systematic and repeatable.”[2][3]
According to Encyclopedia Britannica:
“With the decline of the Greco-Roman realm, scientific progress shifted to the Islamic world. In particular, al-Maʾmūn, the seventh ʿAbbāsid caliph of Baghdad, founded the House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikma) in ad 830 to translate, study, and improve upon Hellenistic works of science and philosophy. Among the initial scholars were al-Khwārizmī and al-Kindī. Known as the “philosopher of the Arabs,” al-Kindī extended the concept of rectilinearly propagating light rays and discussed the mechanism of vision. By 1000, the Pythagorean model of light had been abandoned, and a ray model, containing the basic conceptual elements of what is now known as geometrical optics, had emerged. In particular, Ibn al-Haytham (Latinized as Alhazen), in Kitab al-manazir (c. 1038; “Optics”), correctly attributed vision to the passive reception of light rays reflected from objects rather than an active emanation of light rays from the eyes. He also studied the mathematical properties of the reflection of light from spherical and parabolic mirrors and drew detailed pictures of the optical components of the human eye. Ibn al-Haytham’s work was translated into Latin in the 13th century and was a motivating influence on the Franciscan friar and natural philosopher Roger Bacon. Bacon studied the propagation of light through simple lenses and is credited as one of the first to have described the use of lenses to correct vision.”[4]
It is reasonable to infer from the above quote that Roger Bacon introduced optics of Alhazen to Europe and Sir Isaac Newton’s candle in the field of optics was lit by the candle of Bacon. Alhazen’smost famous work,Book of Optics, was translated into Latin and disseminated throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. This work influenced many great thinkers, including Roger Bacon, who wrote a summary of it. In this book, Alhazen correctly identified that eyesight is caused by light entering the eye, contradicting an earlier belief espoused by Euclid and Ptolemy that light is emitted from the eye. In what is known as Alhazen’s problem, he also used conic sections to determine the point of reflection from a surface given the center of the eye and the observed point. He described a pinhole camera and the camera obscura. Alhazen also described the refraction and the dispersion of light into its component colors, ideas credited to Isaac Newton. “Certainly in the field of optics, Newton himself stood on the shoulders of a giant who lived 700 years earlier,” said Jim Al-Khalili, a physics professor at the University of Surrey in the UK. Khalili recently narrated “The Empire of Reason,” a BBC program on Alhazen that is part of a three-part series on medieval Islamic scientists. Alhazen also described the motion of the planets, which inspired Johannes Kepler. Alhazen was perhaps the first person to use the scientific method. Author Bradley Steffens calls him “the first scientist.”[5]The backcover of Alhazen’sbiography by Bradley Steffens states:
“Ibn al-Haytham, who lived from approximately 950 to 1040, was a pioneer in several scientific and mathematical fields, including physics, optics, astronomy, and analytical geometry. His experiments on how light is refracted by the atmosphere were later developed by Isaac Newton, and he discovered the first law of motion centuries before Galileo. Most importantly, Ibn al-Haytham, a devout Muslim, was committed to a scientific method based on observation, hypothesis, and testing, and he helped keep alive the classical spirit of inquiry first developed in Ancient Greece. Ibn al-Haytham’s groundbreaking work reflects a life of travel and adventure, and this biography introduces this fascinating scientist to a new generation of readers.”[6]
Professor Jim Al-Khalili who teaches at the University of Surrey wrote in an article about Alhazen titled The ‘first true scientist’:
“Isaac Newton is, as most will agree, the greatest physicist of all time. At the very least, he is the undisputed father of modern optics,­ or so we are told at school where our textbooks abound with his famous experiments with lenses and prisms, his study of the nature of light and its reflection, and the refraction and decomposition of light into the colours of the rainbow. Yet, the truth is rather greyer; and I feel it important to point out that, certainly in the field of optics, Newton himself stood on the shoulders of a giant who lived 700 years earlier. For, without doubt, another great physicist, who is worthy of ranking up alongside Newton, is a scientist born in AD 965 in what is now Iraq who went by the name of al-Hassan Ibn al-Haytham. Most people in the West will never have even heard of him. As a physicist myself, I am quite in awe of this man’s contribution to my field, but I was fortunate enough to have recently been given the opportunity to dig a little into his life and work through my recent filming of a three-part BBC Four series on medieval Islamic scientists.”[7]
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