Alhazen: Early experiments on light

by Anthony Carpi, Ph.D., Anne E. Egger, Ph.D.

This material is excerpted from a teaching module on the Visionlearning website, to view this material in context, please visit Research Methods: Experimentation.

Figure 1: Alhazen (965-ca.1039) as pictured on an Iraqi 10,000-dinar note

One of the first ideas regarding how human vision works came from the Greek philosopher Empedocles around 450 BCE. Empedocles reasoned that the Greek goddess Aphrodite had lit a fire in the human eye, and vision was possible because light rays from this fire emanated from the eye illuminating objects around us. While a number of people challenged this proposal, the idea that light radiated from the human eye proved surprisingly persistent until around 1,000 CE, when a Persian scientist advanced our knowledge of the nature of light and, in so doing, developed a new and more rigorous approach to scientific research. Abū 'Alī al-Hasan ibn al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham, also known as Alhazen, was born in 965 CE in the Arab city of Basra in what is now present day Iraq. He began his scientific studies in physics, mathematics, and other sciences after reading the works of several Greek philosophers. One of Alhazen's most significant contributions was a seven-volume work on optics titled Kitab al-Manazir (later translated to Latin as Opticae Thesaurus Alhazeni – Alhazen's Book of Optics). Beyond the contributions this book made to the field of optics, it was a remarkable work in that it based conclusions on experimental evidence rather than abstract reasoning – the first major publication to do so. Alhazen's contributions have proved so significant that his likeness was immortalized on the 2003 10,000-dinar note issued by Iraq (Figure 1).

Alhazen invested significant time studying light, color, shadows, rainbows, and other optical phenomena. Among this work was a study in which he stood in a darkened room with a small hole in one wall. Outside of the room, he hung two lanterns at different heights. Alhazen observed that the light from each lantern illuminated a different spot in the room, and each lighted spot formed a direct line with the hole and one of the lanterns outside the room. He also found that covering a lantern caused the spot it illuminated to darken, and exposing the lantern caused the spot to reappear. Thus, Alhazen provided some of the first experimental evidence that light does not emanate from the human eye but rather is emitted by certain objects (like lanterns) and travels from these objects in straight lines. Alhazen's experiment may seem simplistic today, but his methodology was ground-breaking: he developed a hypothesis based on observations of physical relationships (that light comes from objects), and then designed an experiment to test that hypothesis. Despite the simplicity of the method, Alhazen's experiment was a critical step in refuting the long-standing theory that light emanated from the human eye, and it was a major event in the development of modern scientific research methodology.

Later scientists buildt upon Alhazen's work. Once Alhazen established that light given off by objects enters the human eye, and the natural question that was asked was "what is the nature of light that enters the human eye?" Two common theories about the nature of light were debated for many years. Sir Isaac Newton was among the principal proponents of a theory suggesting that light was made of small particles. The English naturalist Robert Hooke (who held the interesting title of Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society of London) supported a different theory stating that light was a type of wave, like sound waves. In 1801, Thomas Young conducted a now classic scientific experiment that helped resolve this controversy. Young, like Alhazen, worked in a darkened room and allowed light to enter only through a small hole in a window shade (Figure 5). Young refocused the beam of light with mirrors and split the beam with a paper-thin card. The split light beams were then projected onto a screen, and formed an alternating light and dark banding pattern that was a sign that light was indeed a wave (see our Light I: Particle or Wave? module).

Young Experiment Illustration
Figure 5: Young's split-light beam experiment helped clarify the wave nature of light.

Approximately 100 years later, in 1905, new experiments led Albert Einstein to conclude that light exhibits properties of both waves and particles. Einstein's dual wave-particle theory is now generally accepted by scientists.

Experiments continue to help refine our understanding of light even today. In addition to his wave-particle theory, Einstein also proposed that the speed of light was unchanging and absolute. Yet in 1998 a group of scientists led by Lene Hau showed that light could be slowed from its normal speed of 3 x 108 meters per second to a mere 17 meters per second with a special experimental apparatus (Hau et al., 1999). The series of experiments that began with Alhazen's work 1000 years ago has led to a progressively deeper understanding of the nature of light. Although the tools with which scientists conduct experiments may have become more complex, the principles behind controlled experiments are remarkably similar to those used by Alhazen hundreds of years ago.