The First True Scientist, al-Hassan Ibn al-Haytham, 700 years before Newton (BBC)
BBC NEWS | Science & Environment | The 'first true scientist'
22:18 GMT, Sunday, 4 January 2009
The 'first true scientist'
By Professor Jim Al-Khalili
University of Surrey
Artist's impression of al-Hassan Ibn al-Haytham (BBC)
An artist's impression of al-Hassan Ibn al-Haytham
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 an Iraqi scientist born in
AD 965 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.
Popular accounts of the history of science typically suggest that no major scientific advances took place in between the
ancient Greeks and the European Renaissance.
But just because Western Europe languished in the Dark Ages, does not mean there was stagnation elsewhere. Indeed, the
period between the 9th and 13th Centuries marked the Golden Age of Arabic science.
Great advances were made in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, physics, chemistry and philosophy. Among the many geniuses
of that period Ibn al-Haytham stands taller than all the others.
Ibn-al Haytham conducted early investigations into light
Ibn al-Haytham is regarded as the father of the modern scientific method.
As commonly defined, this is the approach to investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and
integrating previous knowledge, based on the gathering of data through observation and measurement, followed by the
formulation and testing of hypotheses to explain the data.
This is how we do science today and is why I put my trust in the advances that have been made in science.
But it is often still claimed that the modern scientific method was not established until the early 17th Century by
Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes.
There is no doubt in my mind, however, that Ibn al-Haytham arrived there first.
In fact, with his emphasis on experimental data and reproducibility of results, he is often referred to as the "world's
first true scientist".
He was the first scientist to give a correct account of how we see objects.
Jim Al-Khalili (BBC)
It is incredible that we are only now uncovering the debt that today's physicists owe to an Arab who lived 1,000 years ago
Prof Jim Al-Khalili
He proved experimentally, for instance, that the so-called emission theory (which stated that light from our eyes shines
upon the objects we see), which was believed by great thinkers such as Plato, Euclid and Ptolemy, was wrong and
established the modern idea that we see because light enters our eyes.
What he also did that no other scientist had tried before was to use mathematics to describe and prove this process.
So he can be regarded as the very first theoretical physicist, too.
He is perhaps best known for his invention of the pinhole camera and should be credited with the discovery of the laws
He also carried out the first experiments on the dispersion of light into its constituent colours and studied shadows,
rainbows and eclipses; and by observing the way sunlight diffracted through the atmosphere, he was able to work out a
rather good estimate for the height of the atmosphere, which he found to be around 100km.
In common with many modern scholars, Ibn-al Haytham badly needed the time and isolation to focus on writing his many
treatises, including his great work on optics.
An unwelcome opportunity was granted him, however, when he was imprisoned in Egypt between 1011 and 1021, having failed
a task set him by a caliph in Cairo to help solve the problem of regulating the flooding of the Nile.
While still in Basra, Ibn al-Haytham had claimed that the Nile's autumn flood waters could be held by a system of dykes
and canals, thereby preserved as reservoirs until the summerıs droughts.
But on arrival in Cairo, he soon realised that his scheme was utterly impractical from an engineering perspective.
Yet rather than admit his mistake to the dangerous and murderous caliph, Ibn-al Haytham instead decided to feign madness
as a way to escape punishment.
This promptly led to him being placed under house arrest, thereby granting him 10 years of seclusion in which to work.
He was only released after the caliph's death. He returned to Iraq where he composed a further 100 works on a range of
subjects in physics and mathematics.
While travelling through the Middle East during my filming, I interviewed an expert in Alexandria who showed me recently
discovered work by Ibn al-Haytham on astronomy.
It seems he had developed what is called celestial mechanics, explaining the orbits of the planets, which was to lead to
the eventual work of Europeans like Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Newton.
It is incredible that we are only now uncovering the debt that today's physicists owe to an Arab who lived 1,000 years ago.
Professor Jim Al-Khalili presents Science and Islam on BBC Four at 2100GMT on Monday 5, 12 & 19 January
yup and i will betcha a dollar to a dog turd that given another 50 years, we will find this dude stood on the shoulders of another yet to be discovered giant, that lived a millenium before him.
as we know the victor rights the history books, sometimes in doing so they erase contributions of some very sharp fella's in the process.
re history: a few years ago I was in the Vatican and even tho I had a considerable number of art history classes [5 years] I did not realize until just then what it was all about. "He who writes history, writes history". that is it, the other guys vanish. The Vatican is one giant history book, every story is told, every answer is given, in the most beautiful and convincing way possible. all others are gone, they never existed.
All of us who are mechanics and inventors know that our ancestors were as clever if not much more motivated and could figure out solutions to the problems at hand. I have not doubt that enormous knowledge was lost and or not credited to the right persons.
I think that much of the disconnect between the US and Iraq is rooted in their heritage as the leaders of an empire that covered 5 time zones and 500 years, while most people in the US regard them as a bunch of ignorant camel jockeys. Not only did they have such scientists, but much of the knowledge we have of ancient Greece was preserved by the Omayyads and Abbasids (or however you wish to spell them, Arabic doesn't go directly into English.) As the empire was winding down, scholars, mostly Spanish Jews, translated the Arabic into Latin, making it available when Europe finally got its act together. Much of the history we are taught in schools is not only Napoleon's "fable agreed upon", it is so gerrymandered as to be almost useless. All most people know about this era is that Othello sang a lot and strangled his wife.
I don't see how this guy's work led to anything since it was apparently unknown until recently. It's a bit of a leap to say he influenced European science as they appear to have never heard of him. It's like learning you have a rich uncle who died and his fortune was never found. Nice to know but not particularly valuable.
It would appear that the culture of the time and those that followed, unlike the European experience, did not appreciate nor value this man's work. Not much has changed in 1000 years.
As for discovering the pin hole camera - please - any kid who's walked in a forest of trees has seen the pin hole effect.
Get the Newsweek special issue about the Bible on the stands and read the article about the Sistine Chapel paintings. Old Mike literally flipped off the Pope.
I am in agreement with surplusjohn and believe our laboring ancestors were more interested in results than who got the credit.
Here is something you may appreciate:
1) The positional value of zero .
Yup, both invented by those 'camel jockeys' and still in use today.
But I do get your point; much was discovered by the Greeks, Romans, Persians (now Iraq & Iran), etc., but it took western man to develop these discoveries (often re-discover them, too) and make them useful and available to the public at large.
During ancient times only the very rich would benefit from some discoveries, and most of these were simply labelled as curiosities with no practical value.
Is this all true....or is it yet another convenient case of revisionist history wherein, inevitably, the white man ripped off someone else?
As I understand it, the world of Islam, in the person of the Moors, occupied Spain and built there, the first university and the first library in what was to become the Western World, while my ancestors were wandering around Europe in animal skins and carrying clubs. I still wander around my farm in the New World carrying a hoe and a scythe, so I guess we haven't progressed much ...:-) but its organic and sustainable. I would love to know how they farmed back then. We know a lot about pre Columbian farming in places in Brazil, like Terra Preta, generating biochar, and that was a substantial
Originally Posted by 9100
contribution to man's production of food.
So where were the Chinese when all this was going on and what were their accomplishments at that time; was there any communication with the East?
Well, a very famous man is quoted as saying that there was nothing new under the sun.
Originally Posted by GregSY
As I posted above it took white man to re-discover the science because of lost records; and it certainly took white man to develop the science and make it useful and available to all mankind. Most of it is available even to those who cannot afford to pay for it such as medical care and medication in most countries.