Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The 'Mad' 11th Century Egyptian Scholar Who Proved Aristotle Wrong

Science Daily

Ibn al-Haytham's 11th-century Book of Optics, which was published exactly 1000 years ago, is often cited alongside Newton's Principia as one of the most influential books in physics. Yet very little is known about the writer, considered by many to be the father of modern optics.

January's Physics World features a fanciful re-imagining of the 10-year period in the life of the medieval Muslim polymath, written by Los Angeles-based science writer Jennifer Ouellette.

The feature covers the time when al-Haytham -- banished from society and deprived of books -- came up with his revolutionary theories about the form and passage of light.

Ouellette brings detail to the skeletal plot of al-Haytham's life, from the awe and intimidation felt when he was summoned by the Caliph to use his engineering prowess to overcome the annual flooding of the Nile, to his fear of punishment when he realised he had failed in his task.

Al-Haytham was only able to escape a death sentence from the notoriously brutal Caliph by pretending he had gone mad. The Caliph instead incarcerated Al-Haytham, imprisoning him under house arrest to a cell. Confined and alone, it was here that Al-Haytham carried out the work that was to make him famous.

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