The Sciences

The Scholar and the Caliph

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollJan 8, 2011 1:11 AM


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Kudos to Physics World for trying out an interesting experiment -- publishing a work of fiction. No, I'm not being snarky about some science article I think is woefully misguided; they really did publish a short story rather than a more conventional feature. It's by Jennifer Ouellette, a science writer I've never met, but she looks really cute. (Maybe I should shoot her an email?)

The story is about Ibn al-Haytham (sometimes Latinized to Alhazen), a pioneering Muslim scientist from around the year 1000. A story is appropriate because we just don't know too many details of al-Haytham's life. What we do know is that he was placed under house arrest in Cairo after disappointing the Caliph by failing to control the floods of the Nile. There was an unanticipated advantage to house arrest, at least in Jennifer's retelling -- al-Haytham was denied his precious books, so he couldn't engage in the usual work of scholars, which was taken to be commenting on classic texts. Instead, he hit upon the idea of doing experiments on his own. The amazing result was a seven-volume Book of Optics. Long story short, this was the work that really established the idea that sight relies on rays of light stretching from objects to the eye, as well as introducing the camera obscura and discussing the physical mechanism of sight. After ten years of arrest, the Caliph died and al-Haytham was released. But he didn't slow down, producing "scores" (according to Wikipedia) of other works on physics, astronomy, mathematics, and medicine. Kind of makes my own C.V. seem pretty puny by comparison; better get back to work.

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