Ibn al-Haytham: The man who discovered how we see

Read the story of Ibn al-Haytham, also know as Alhazen - the man who went on a journey of discovery that changed our world forever

Artistic impression of Ibn al-HaythamOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

A visionary scientist

Born in Basra, Iraq, around the year 965, Al-Hasan Ibn al-Haytham, Latinised as Alhazen or Alhasen, was a pioneering scientific thinker who, from his observation of light entering a dark room, made major breakthroughs in understanding light and vision.

He set new standards in experimental science and completed his influential Book of Optics sometime around 1027.

Modern bust representation of 11th-century scientific thinker Ibn al-HaythamOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Ibn al-Haytham, envisioned in this bust by artist Ali Amro, lived during a golden age of discovery and creativity in Muslim civilisation when men and women of different faiths and cultures achieved breakthroughs that still influence our world today.

His methodology of investigation, in particular using experiments to verify theory, shows certain similarities to what later became known as the modern scientific method.

Manuscript from the Book of OpticsOriginal Source: Book of Optics

He wrote at least 96 books. His most famous is the Book of Optics or Kitab al-Manazir which was translated into Latin and became very influential.

He laid out completely new ideas about light and vision in this book he wrote between 1011 and 1027, while he was in Egypt.

Ibn al-Haytham studied what eyes are made of and named important parts of the eye. This sketch of the human optical system based on the original drawing from the Book of Optics shows how eyes are connected to the brain.

Turban Camera Obscura ExhibitOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

He experimented in a dark room he called Al-Beit Al-Muzlim or the Dark House.

The dark room later came to be known as a camera obscura.

Ibn al-Haytham Exhibition, AmmanOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Ibn al-Haytham studied how light moves and did tests using lenses and mirrors. He studied reflection and refraction concluding that light refracts when it moved through different materials.

Ibn al-Haytham Campaign PosterOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn al-Haytham is a mixed animation and live-action film that tells the story of Ibn al-Haytham. Click here to watch the film

Film Clip Showing Ibn Al-Haytham's Discovery of How We SeeOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn al-Haytham' Short FIlm

It depicts his story and discovery, made in a dark room that light coming through a tiny hole projected an image of the outside world onto the dark wall opposite the hole - similar to how we see.

"An Inspiring Golden Age", artistic impressionOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Ibn al-Haytham lived in early Muslim civilisation.

It was a time of great learning that spread from southern Spain to China.

Men and women of different faiths and cultures studied science and wisdom of ancient cultures adding to it and making breakthroughs that had an impact on the European Renaissance.

"Highly Prized Knowledge", artistic impressionOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Knowledge was highly prized...

In Basra for example, Ibn al-Haytham's birthplace, the library held more than 15,000 books including ancient works that were translated into Arabic.

"Ibn al-Haytham in Egypt", artistic impressionOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

In the 11th century, Ibn al-Haytham was invited to Egypt to help build a dam on the Nile. After a field visit, he declined to proceed with the project.

"Ibn al-Haytham's Discovery", artistic impressionOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

In Egypt, Ibn al-Haytham focused on making major breakthroughs in understanding light and vision.

During that time, he made his greatest scientific discovery.

While sitting in a dark room, the story goes, he noticed a bright light on the wall that turned out to be an image of objects outside his room.

Ibn al-Haytham's Experiment', artist's impressionOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Following his dark room observation, Ibn al-Haytham made more experiments and understood: light bounced off the objects outside, travelled through the hole in the wall of the room, and made the image.

He saw comparisons to the human eye – the dark room was like an eye and that is how people see.

Artistic impression of Ibn al-Haytham sketching sn eye diagramOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Ibn al-Haytham researched further to fully understand how our eyes worked.

He studied the eyes closely and found and names important parts of the eye like the cornea.

Ibn al-Haytham - Discovery of How We SeeOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

After he died around the year 1039, Ibn al-Haytham’s Book of Optics was translated into Latin, passing valuable knowledge on to scientists leading the European Renaissance.

Among those influenced by his work and methods were Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci, German physicist Johannes Kepler and English scientist Roger Bacon.

Ibn al-Haytham on Selenographia Book CoverOriginal Source: Selenographia Book Cover

The Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius chose to honour Ibn al-Haytham and Galileo, crediting the former as pioneer of the rational scientific method in his masterwork Selenographia.

Published in 1647, the book was the first to chart the Moon's surface as seen through a telescope.

Artistic impression of Ibn al-Haytham in his older ageOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Ibn al-Haytham’s work in understanding the fundamental nature of light underpinned the discoveries of many who came after him.

Based on centuries of discoveries, the long work done in optics made possible the world of media and communications we live in today.

"Light of Ibn al-Haytham", artistic impressionOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Al-Haytham's lasting legacy impacted many great thinkers over the centuries, just as he learned from ancient scholars who came before him.

Omar Sharif on the set of last lead performanceOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Legendary actor Omar Sharif on set during the filming of 1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn al-Haytham.

This was his last lead performance before his death. He took up the role in this film despite having been on retirement for some years at the time of filming.

Interview with actor Omar SharifOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Omar Sharif talks about his role in the film 1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn al-Haytham.

Sharif studied physics before taking up acting. He saw the film as an important tool for educating young people.

"Wisdom of Ibn Al-Haytham", artistic impressionOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

“If learning the truth is the scientist’s goal, then he must make himself the enemy of all that he reads.”

- Ibn al-Haytham (965–1039)

Credits: Story

Created by 1001 Inventions
Producers: Ahmed Salim, Shaza Shannan

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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