Islamic scholar Abu Ali al-Hassan Ibn al-Haytham (ca. 965-1041), known in the West as Alhazen, began his career as just another Islamic polymath. He soon got himself in trouble with the ruler of Cairo by boasting that he could regulate the flow of the Nile with a series of dams and dikes. At first glance, it had looked like such a simple problem. But the more he studied it, the more impossible it seemed. Al-Hakim, known to his subjects as the Mad Caliph with good reason, was getting impatient. Alhazen only saw one way out: he pretended to be crazy. Safely confined as a madman until the caliph’s death ten years later, Alhazen continued to work.
Time and isolation? It was the perfect situation for a man with a book to write.
While confined in his home, Alhazen revolutionized the study of optics and laid the foundation for the scientific method. (Move over, Sir Isaac Newton.) Before Alhazen, vision and light were questions of philosophy. Alhazen considered vision and light in terms of mathematics, physics, physiology, and even psychology. In his Book of Optics, he discussed the nature of light and color. He accurately described the mechanism of sight and the anatomy of the eye. He was concerned with reflection and refraction. He experimented with mirrors and lenses. He discovered that rainbows are caused by refraction and calculated the height of earth’s atmosphere. In his spare time, he built the first camera obscura.
Modern physicist Jim al-Khalili, in his excellent The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance, calls Alhazen the greatest physicist of the medieval world, and possibly the greatest in the 2000 years between Archimedes and Sir Isaac Newton. His Book of Optics was first translated into Latin in the late twelfth or early thirteen century. It had an enormous impact on the work of western scientists from Roger Bacon (c. 1214-1292) to Isaac Newton (1642-1727)., calls Alhazen the greatest physicist of the medieval world, and possibly the greatest in the 2000 years between Archimedes and Sir Isaac Newton. His Book of Optics was first translated into Latin in the late twelfth or early thirteen century. It had an enormous impact on the work of western scientists from Roger Bacon (c. 1214-1292) to Isaac Newton (1642-1727). calls Alhazen the greatest physicist of the medieval world, and possibly the greatest in the 2000 years between Archimedes and Sir Isaac Newton. His Book of Optics was first translated into Latin in the late twelfth or early thirteen century. It had an enormous impact on the work of western scientists from Roger Bacon (c. 1214-1292) to Isaac Newton (1642-1727).
This post previously appeared in Wonders & Marvels
I always learn something new when My Own True Love and I head out on a Road Trip Through History. Our recent expedition to Colonial Michilimacinac was no exception.
- I learned that eighteenth century cooks dried pumpkins as well as apples* and used pig bladders to seal crocks of prickled vegetables.
- I had long known that when push came to shove (so to speak) the bayonet was a more useful weapon than the musket to which it was affixed. I had not previously known that with repeated firing the sides of the bayonet became coated with a greasy toxin that meant soldiers stabbed with a bayonet were unlikely to survive even a flesh wound. **
- I was introduced to wall guns–a weapon that combined the blasting power of a cannon with the mobility of a musket. Obviously a besieged fort’s best friend.
But the thing that struck me the most forcibly was the difference between how the British and the French built log cabins in the wilderness.
The Anglo-American log cabin style is what I picture when I think of log cabins: horizontal logs fitted together with notches and chinked with mud.
photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress
It is the form that evolved into WPA lodges, resort cabins, and Lincoln Logs.***
The French Canadian style of construction, known as poteaux en terre, or posts in the ground, used vertical timbers set into trenches, then weather-proofed with chinking and plaster.
It’s a small difference, I know. But it somehow seemed emblematic of the larger differences of culture that exploded into violence along the borders of the British and French colonies–a subject I’ll be coming back to in later posts.
*I may have learned about dried pumpkin before and simply blocked it out. I know it’s un-American, but I do not like pumpkin and cannot understand wanting to preserve it for future use.
**I’m not sure why this came as a surprise. Until the commercial production of penicillin in WWII, infected wounds were a major cause of death in warfare.
***Invented by John Lloyd Wright, the son of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Really. I was as surprised as you are.
One of my favorite books as a child was C. W. Ceram’s Gods, Graves, and Scholars: The Story of Archaeology.* I checked it out from the Springfield public library over and over. It was one of the first books I bought with my own money.** I still have it and dip into it on occasion when I want to refresh my memory or just enjoy Ceram’s story-telling one more time.
Ceram gave me some of my earliest heroes: Schliemann, Evans, Champollion and Carter.*** He made deciphering Linear B as enthralling as discovering King Tut’s tomb. As an adult I was thrilled when I saw Mesopotamian artifacts at the Oriental Institute in Chicago and the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum. When My Own True Love and I traveled to Turkey for the first time I insisted on visiting the site of Troy, even though my ankle was in a cast and I needed a cane.
Ceram wrote with adults in mind, but his book was the perfect introduction to archaeology for a nerdy child. In his foreword, Ceram says his “aim was to portray the dramatic qualities of archaeology, its human side.” He succeeds. In his hands, archaeology was made up of “all manner of excitement and achievement. Adventure is coupled with bookish toil. Romantic excursions go hand in hand with scholarly self-discipline and moderation.” He took a subject often buried in technical language and found the stories at its heart. Is it any wonder that I was hooked?
Gods, Graves and Scholars has been continuously in print since it was first published in Germany in 1943 and translated into 28 languages. As a writer of popular history, I could do worse than take Herr Ceram as a role model.****
*What can I say? I earned my history nerd membership early.
**Let me pause for a brief moment of silence in memory of the indie bookstore of my youth, the Heritage Bookstore in Springfield Mo. It was a small store in a neighborhood strip mall, but Aladdin’s cave had nothing on it as far as I was concerned.
***This actually began as a blog post about Champollion and the Rosetta Stone. Then I pulled Ceram off the shelf….
****Except for that stint of writing propaganda for the 3rd Reich under his real name, Kurt Wilhelm Marek. Sometimes Google gives you unhappy surprises.