Ibn al-Haytham

The opening of the 1572 printing of Ibn al-Haytham’s (here Latinized as “Alhazen”) treatise on optics, the Opticae Thesaurus.

Ibn al-Haytham (ابن الهيثم, al-Ḥasan Ibn al-Haytham; b. Basra in Abbasid Iraq around 965 CE, d. in Cairo in Fatimid Egypt around 1040 CE) was a remarkable thinker. Not only did al-Haytham revolutionise optical thought by mathematising its study, his thinking went on to have similar revolutionary effects in medieval Europe. The reception of ‘Alhazen’, as his name was Latinised, in thirteenth-century Europe led to the full understanding of refraction and the behaviour of light. The application of these principles to architecture generated similar transformations. It is, for example, al-Haytham’s scientific thinking that lies behind the development of perspective in the architectural theory and practice in Renaissance Florence and Rome.

In 2020, the Ordered Universe team began a collaboration with Professor Nader El-Bizri a world leading scholar of Arabic science and philosophy who has studied the work of Ibn al-Haytham for many years.

We are fortunate to be working with Professor El-Bizri thanks to a Leverhulme Visiting Professorship at Durham University, where Professor El-Bizri will work with staff and students across multiple departments, along with wider scholarly networks in the UK with the aim of publishing about al-Haytham and his legacy. Ultimately, we aim to put together the wide-ranging network needed for a collaborative humanities-science investigation of al-Haytham and the questions his work provokes.

The role of Alhazen in these processes is simultaneously well-known, but limited; only half of his scientific works have English translation and a quarter are not yet edited. Professor Nader El-Bizri’s Visiting Professorship to Durham University will provide a corrective to this potentially misleading state of affairs and show the full sophistication of Alhazen’s scientific thought and its application. Given the range of Alhazen’s interests this can only be done through an interdisciplinary study. Starting from his monumental Book of Optics (Kitāb al-manāẓir; De Aspectibus; Perspectiva; Opticae Thesaurus) the programme of research will explore Alhazen’s thought on the geometry of conic, cylindrical and spherical sections, along with their applications in the perfection of optical instruments, including the modelling of mirrors and lenses and the refinement of the elements that constituted the tools for celestial and terrestrial navigations: astrolabes and compasses. 

Engraving from the title page of Opticae Thesaurus, a latin edition of Ibn al-Haytham’s Book of Optics. Among other things it shows how Archimedes allegedly set Roman ships on fire with parabolic mirrors during the Siege of Syracuse.

Our work on this topic is still in its infancy, but one of the first fruits of this project has been a collaboration with Professor Tom Lancaster and student Tom Bickley, both members of the physics department at Durham University to build a model exploring Ibn al-Haytham’s work on rays and optics.

Modern render by Tom Bickley of Ibn al-Haytham’s work using a board and pegs to explore aspects of human focal length and binocular vision. Image by Tom Bickley.

Ibn al-Haytham’s book “Optics” describes several experiments designed to demonstrate the behaviour of light, but few diagrams. On the next pages you can see work by Tom Bickley (supervised by Professor Tom Lancaster) using ray-tracing software to visualise these pioneering experiments, creating three-dimensional images based on a realistic treatment of how light interacts with objects.

You can start exploring Tom Bickley’s work on Ibn al-Haytham’s experiments here.

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