The Book of Optics
Ibn al Haytham
1011-1021

Over a ten-year period, under house arrest for his refusal to follow state orders, scientist and philosopher Ibn al Haytham (known also as al-Basri) produced a monumental seven-volume work covering mathematics, psychology, physics, optics and more. The Book of Optics not only opened up optics as a whole new area of scientific enquiry; it is a foundational text of the scientific method, and the role of experimentation in particular, and was a major influence upon Europe’s scientific and philosophical revolution some centuries later.

Rays of light travel in straight lines? He’s the guy who proved it. The invention of the camera obscura? His. The variability of the speed of light? Yup, that’s him, too. And the first magnifying glass, and the method of hypothesis, experimentatation, analysis, conclusion which is the very basis of scientific scholarship. It’s all here in Ibn al Haytham. Outside of academic circles, his name is not widely known in the Euro-American tradition today, but to conduct a cursory review of those influenced by his work is to trace the wide arc of Europe’s most enduring thinkers – Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, Isaac Newton, Rene Descartes, Francis Bacon and on and on and on.

If ever there was an example of how much knowledge we miss by limiting ourselves to the European tradition, and how much that tradition itself owes to others, and the intellectuals of the Arab world in particular, it’s Ibn al Haytham. OK, you may not want to read the seven volumes of The Book of Optics. But read about this guy, and learn his name, We owe him that much.

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