Adonis Diaries

The True Nature of Light as explained by optic scientist Iraqi Ibn al-Haytham (1,000 years ago)

Posted on: November 16, 2016

Optics: The True Nature of Light by Iraqi Ibn al-Haytham (1,000 years ago)

Playing a vital role in our everyday lives, technologies based on light are in use all around us. From art and science to modern technology, the study of light – and how it behaves and interacts with matter has intrigued scientists for over a century.

This year, 2015, marks the 1,000th anniversary of the Kitab al-Manazir (The Book of Optics), a seven-volume treatise written by the Iraqi scientist Optics: The True Nature of Light by Iraqi Ibn al-Haytham (1,000 years ago)- a pioneering thinker whose views have been crucial to our understanding of how the universe came into existence.

Physicist Jim al-Khalili reveals how Islamic thinkers played a crucial role in explaining light and optics.

Shaping our understanding of vision, optics and light, Ibn al-Haytham interrogated theories of light put forward by the Greeks – men like Plato and Euclid who argued that the way we see objects is by shining light out of our eyes onto them. Ibn al-Haytham argued instead, and correctly, that the way we see is by light entering our eyes from outside either reflecting off objects or directly from luminous bodies like candles or the sun.

His methodology of investigation, in which he combined theory and experiments, were also remarkable for their emphasis on proof and evidence.

In the first episode of Science in the Golden Age, theoretical physicist, Jim al-Khalili, looks at state-of-the-art applications of optics and traces the science of light back to the medieval Islamic world.

Al-Khalili recreates Ibn al-Haytham’s famous ‘camera obscura’ experiment with stunning results and also uncovers the work of Ibn Sahl, a mathematician and physicist associated with the Abbasid court of Baghdad.

According to a recently discovered manuscript, he correctly described “Snell’s law of refraction” centuries before Dutch astronomer Willebrord Snellius was even born.

We also look at the work of Ibn Mu’adh, who brought together knowledge of optics and geometry in order to estimate the height of the atmosphere.

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