Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Father of Modern Optics

For a long time, there were two competing theories about how the eyes see—both wrong.

Alhazen ibn al-Haytham
Aristotle believed in what is called the intromission theory: the idea that actual physical forms enter the eye to plant images in your head. Euclid and Ptolemy believed in the theory of extromission: the idea that rays from the eyes went out and "scanned" or "detected" objects. Scholars and philosophers for centuries came down on one side or the other. It wasn't until the 11th century that a better theory came along.

Alhazen ibn al-Haytham (965-c.1040) was a Muslim who wrote about many topics. Originally he was a theologian, trying to address and reconcile the issues between the Shi'ah and Sunnah sects. He made his most lasting contributions, however, in the fields of astronomy, mathematics and optics. His Kitab al-Manazir (Book of Optics) changed the study of optics forever. He rejected both previous theories, arguing that there was no time for the eye to emit rays that could travel to a distant star and back to the eye instantly the way they would have to when first opening the eyes. He also refused to believe there was any mechanism that allowed forms to enter the eye. Instead, he opted (ha ha) for light coming from external objects to enter the eye, carrying an image of the object being looked at.

His theory of light's involvement in sight came when he realized that bright and dim light both affected visual perception, and that bright light left after-images on the eye. Also, it was obvious that perceiving color depended upon having sufficient light. He even invented the camera obscura in order to learn more about how light worked.

...and he did it while in prison.
Alhazen's diagram of the eye, with terms we still use

Earlier in his career, he became overconfident in his knowledge and made the mistake of claiming it would be possible to devise a way to control the annual spring flooding of the Nile. (Although born in Basra, Iraq, he lived his adult life in Cairo.) Hearing this, Caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, the sixth ruler of the Fatimid dynasty, ordered him to do so. When al-Haytham realized he wasn't able to perform this enormous feat of engineering, he tried to simply retire from the profession. The angry Caliph sent his men for al-Haytham, who feigned madness in order to avoid a death sentence for disappointing his all-powerful ruler. He was placed under house arrest, and devoted the remainder of his life to the sciences for which he is now known. Because of the experiments he conducted in order to test his theories, mirroring what would be known as the scientific method, some think of him as the "first scientist."

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