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Professor Giles Gasper, Durham University
Professor Nader El-Bizri, American University of Beirut
Visiting Professorship

Revolutionising optics: Ibn al-Haytham and medieval scientific thinking

Giles Gasper and Nader El-Bizri's research programme will transcend traditional boundaries of scholarship in the humanities by deepening the interconnections with the exact sciences and the arts, while considering their intercultural adaptive transmissions through the history of ideas 

Engraving from the title page of Opticae ThesaurusEngraving from the title page of Opticae Thesaurus, a latin edition of Ibn al-Haytham's Book of Optics. Among other things it shows how Archimedes allegedly set Roman ships on fire with parabolic mirrors during the Siege of Syracuse.

Ibn al-Haytham (ابن الهيثم, al-Ḥasan Ibn al-Haytham; b. Basra in Abbasid Iraq around 965 CE, d. in Cairo in Fatimid Egypt around 1040 CE) was a remarkable thinker. Not only did Alhazen revolutionise optical thought by mathematising its study, his thinking went on to have similar revolutionary effects in medieval Europe. The reception of ‘Alhazen’, as his name was Latinised, in thirteenth-century Europe led to the full understanding of refraction and the behaviour of light. The application of these principles to architecture generated similar transformations. It is, for example, Alhazen’s scientific thinking that lies behind the development of perspective in the architectural theory and practice in Renaissance Florence and Rome. 

All of this underscores the importance of the cross-cultural transmission of scientific knowledge. Seeing ‘European’ histories of science as part of a wider Mediterranean and Middle Eastern intellectual culture is essential for a deeper, richer and more accurate understanding of their development. This will challenge existing popular perceptions of European exceptionalism and demonstrate the value, for modern discourse of a fuller and more complete understanding of historic scientific thought and its legacy. That is an understanding born from collaboration between humanities and sciences. 

The role of Alhazen in these processes is simultaneously well-known, but limited; only half of his scientific works have English translation and a quarter are not yet edited. Professor Nader El-Bizri’s Visiting Professorship to Durham University will provide a corrective to this potentially misleading state of affairs and show the full sophistication of Alhazen’s scientific thought and its application. Given the range of Alhazen’s interests this can only be done through an interdisciplinary study. Starting from his monumental Book of Optics (Kitāb al-manāẓir; De Aspectibus; Perspectiva; Opticae Thesaurus) the programme of research will explore Alhazen’s thought on the geometry of conic, cylindrical and spherical sections, along with their applications in the perfection of optical instruments, including the modelling of mirrors and lenses and the refinement of the elements that constituted the tools for celestial and terrestrial navigations: astrolabes and compasses. 

Professor El-Bizri, a world leading scholar of Arabic science and philosophy, will be hosted at Durham University and will work with staff and students across multiple departments, along with wider scholarly networks in the UK; with the aim of publishing about Alhazen and his legacy and to put together the wide-ranging network needed for a collaborative humanities-science investigation of Alhazen and the questions his work provokes.

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