Thursday, July 27, 2023

Ingenuity & Innovation: 10th Century Iraq

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Maths, Mathematics Education, Nature of Science, History of Science, Astronomy, Astrophysics, Society, Culture

Ed Hessler

Number 2 in Ingenuity & Reality by Lee Lawrence was published in Aramco World, March / April 2023) 

Lawrence begins with a story about Dr. Burcin Mutlu-Pakdil (Dartmouth College). I will not resist the urge to mention that Mutlu-Pakdil did her PhD at the University of Minnesota. She does research on "extreme galaxies" which are the smallest, the faintest and the most distant and observed the first (catalogued as PGC1000714 aka the Burcin galaxy. "These so-called dwarf galaxies are also the most common galaxy in the universe." 

The introduction leads seamlessly to the subject of her story: Abu 'Ali al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham, " who is often known in the West as Alhazen, born 865 CE, Iraq...a polymath who...studied physics through the lens of mathematics. Nader El-Birzi, University of Sharjah recipient of the 2014 Kuwait Prize for Arabic and Islamic Scientific Heritage explains that the Greeks regarded physics and mathematics as distinct ways of studying reality." There were two aspects of Ibn al-Haytham's work "particularly stand out, says El-Bizri...: the experimental method and the 'geometrizing' of the study of natural phenomena."

Alhazen was one of "some before him...believed that light traveled in straight lines (although) al-Haytham (was the) first applied mathematics to explain how light rays actually behaved (and was the first to devise) experiments to find out whether rays really did travel in straight lines and to observe how light behaved under varying conditions." He published this work in the 7-volume "Kitab al-manazir (Book of Optics, ca 1040."

Alhazen's experiments were designed to systematically test what today are known as hypotheses. Several are described in detail in Lawrence's essay and must be read to appreciate the beauty of the design, one of which is illustrated.  This one is  "now heralded as the world's first systematically recorded camera obscura (literally 'dark room'), this innovative experiment led ultimately to the photographic camera." Alhazen made many other contributions to the field that today is mathematical physics as well as to other disciplines, e.g., optics. His experiments also challenged a "dominant theory...that we see because our eyes shoot out a beam that widens into a cone of light....* al-Haytham argued it was the other way around. Light, he postulated, travels into our eye through the pupil, just as it does through the pinhole in the wall (becoming ... the first to understand that vision is also cognitive."

Alhazen's experiments have also led to a deeper understanding of the history of science, particularly the experimental method. El-Bizri, notes that "the milestone...has been moved by two centuries ... indicative of western historians of science "not being aware of earlier approaches to experimentation."

This essay's title, Ibn al-Haytham: Testing is Believing is a first-rate declaration of how science works.
*Fifth grade explanations to explain light and sight as well as results of research findings are found here. There is a link to the research paper, a classic in the science education literature.


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