ABU ALI HASAN IBN AL-HAITHAM
ABU ALI HASAN IBN AL-HAITHAM
Abu Ali Hasan Ibn al-Haitham was one of the most eminent physicists, whose
contributions to optics and the scientific methods are outstanding. Known in the
West as Alhazen, Ibn al-Haitham was born in 965 C.E. in Basrah, and was educated
in Basrah and Baghdad. Thereafter, he went to Egypt, where he was asked to find
ways of controlling the flood of the Nile. Being unsuccessful in this, he
feigned madness until the death of Caliph al-Hakim. He also traveled to Spain
and, during this period, he had ample time for his scientific pursuits, which
included optics, mathematics, physics, medicine and development of scientific
methods on each of which he has left several outstanding books.
He made a thorough examination of the passage of light through various media
and discovered the laws of refraction. He also carried out the first experiments
on the dispersion of light into its constituent colors. His book
Kitab-al-Manadhir was translated into Latin in the Middle Ages, as also
his book dealing with the colors of sunset. He dealt at length with the theory
of various physical phenomena like shadows, eclipses, the rainbow, and
speculated on the physical nature of light. He is the first to describe
accurately the various parts of the eye and give a scientific explanation of the
process of vision. He also attempted to explain binocular vision, and gave a
correct explanation of the apparent increase in size of the sun and the moon
when near the horizon. He is known for the earliest use of the camera obscura.
He contradicted Ptolemy's and Euclid's theory of vision that objects are seen by
rays of light emanating from the eyes; according to him the rays originate in
the object of vision and not in the eye. Through these extensive researches on
optics, he has been considered as the father of modern Optics.
The Latin translation of his main work, Kitab-al-Manadhir, exerted a
great influence upon Western science e.g. on the work of Roger Bacon and Kepler.
It brought about a great progress in experimental methods. His research in
catoptrics centred on spherical and parabolic mirrors and spherical aberration.
He made the important observation that the ratio between the angle of incidence
and refraction does not remain constant and investigated the magnifying power of
a lens. His catoptrics contain the important problem known as Alhazen's problem.
It comprises drawing lines from two points in the plane of a circle meeting at a
point on the circumference and making equal angles with the normal at that
point. This leads to an equation of the fourth degree.
In his book Mizan al-Hikmah Ibn al-Haitham has discussed the density
of the atmosphere and developed a relation between it and the height. He also
studied atmospheric refraction. He discovered that the twilight only ceases or
begins when the sun is 19° below the horizon and attempted to measure the height
of the atmosphere on that basis. He has also discussed the theories of
attraction between masses, and it seems that he was aware of the magnitude of
acceleration due to gravity.
His contribution to mathematics and physics was extensive. In mathematics, he
developed analytical geometry by establishing linkage between algebra and
geometry. He studied the mechanics of motion of a body and was the first to
maintain that a body moves perpetually unless an external force stops it or
changes its direction of motion. This would seem equivalent to the first law of
The list of his books runs to 200 or so, very few of which have survived.
Even his monumental treatise on optics survived through its Latin translation.
During the Middle Ages his books on cosmology were translated into Latin, Hebrew
and other languages. He has also written on the subject of evolution a book that
deserves serious attention even today.
In his writing, one can see a clear development of the scientific methods as
developed and applied by the Muslims and comprising the systematic observation
of physical phenomena and their linking together into a scientific theory. This
was a major breakthrough in scientific methodology, as distinct from guess and
gesture, and placed scientific pursuits on a sound foundation comprising
systematic relationship between observation, hypothesis and verification.
Ibn al-Haitham's influence on physical sciences in general, and optics in
particular, has been held in high esteem and, in fact, it ushered in a new era
in optical research, both in theory and practice.