A few weeks ago I did a post on the camera obscura and noted that the earliest researcher to really understand its properties was the middle-eastern scientist Ibn al-Haytham (965-1040), who in spite of his impressive achievements is rarely discussed by the physics community (including myself in that group). The post caught the attention of Bradley Steffens, who has recently written a short book on the scientist, and now that I’ve read it, I thought I’d recommend it!
“First scientist” is an appropriate title for al-Haytham (who is often referred to as “Alhacen” by westerners). He studied physics, optics, astronomy and mathematics and made significant breakthroughs. More importantly, he devised a philosophy of science that is a precursor to the modern scientific method. Quoting from al-Haytham (from the book),
[W]e should ascend in our inquiry and reasonings, gradually and orderly, criticizing premises and exercising caution in regard to conclusions – our aim in all that we make subject to inspection and review being to employ justice, not to follow prejudice, and to take care in all that we judge and criticize that we seek the truth and not be swayed by opinion.
Steffens has written a wonderfully clear and concise account of al-Haytham’s life and work. Although the book is primarily intended for a young adult audience (hence the conciseness), it also serves as a nice stepping stone for authors (such as me) who would like an overview of his accomplishments before delving into the academic accounts.
The quality of the book is excellent. It is wonderfully typeset and contains many full-color illustrations that bring the era and the science to life. It is also contains an excellent collection of references for further research.
I myself am intrigued and plan to investigate more of al-Haytham’s work. In the meantime, I can recommend Bradley Steffens’ book as an excellent glimpse into the life of this extraordinary scientist.