Was the First Scientist and Arab Muslim from What Is Now Iraq?

By: Bradley Steffens

We live in the Age of Science. We are surrounded by and use advanced technologies with their roots in the discoveries of hard science. We know more about the universe and how it works than any people at any time in history. And we have adopted the scientific standard of proof as our standard of truth, not just in the laboratory, but throughout society. But where did science originate and who was its first practitioner?

Science is the study of the physical world, but it is not just a topic or subject. It is a system of inquiry that follows a specific methodology—the scientific method. It consists of seven steps:?

1) Observation

2) Statement of a problem or question

3) Formulation of a hypothesis, or a possible answer to the problem or question

4) Testing of the hypothesis with an experiment

5) Analysis of the experiment’s results

6) Interpretation of the data and formulation of a conclusion

7) Publication of the findings

One can study nature without adhering to the scientific method, of course. The result, however, is not science. It is junk science or pseudoscience.

Many people throughout history have studied nature without the scientific method. Some of the earliest to do so were the ancient Greeks. Scholars such as Aristotle attempted to explain natural phenomena, but they did not test their ideas with experiments. They used logic to support their findings.

Since nature is more complex than many people imagine, the Greek methodology yielded many ideas later proven wrong by scholars using the scientific method

In 1589, for example, Galileo Galilei devised a series of experiments that showed Aristotle’s ideas about falling bodies to be incorrect. Galileo was not the first scholar to conduct experiments or to follow the scientific method, however. European scholars had been conducting experiments for three hundred years, ever since a Franciscan monk named Roger Bacon advocated experimentation in the thirteenth century. One of Bacon’s books, Perspectiva (Optics) challenges ancient Greek ideas about vision and includes several experiments with light that include all seven steps of the scientific method.

Bacon’s Perspectiva is not an original work, however. It is a summary of a longer work entitled De aspectibus (The Optics). Perspectiva follows the organization of De aspectibus and repeats its experiments step by step. But De aspectibus is not an original work, either. It is the Latin translation of a book written in Arabic entitled Kitb al-Manzir (Book of Optics). Written around 1021, Kitb al-Manzir predates Roger Bacon’s summary of it by 250 years. The author of this groundbreaking book was an Arab Muslim scholar named Abk ‘Al+ al-Hasan ibn al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham.

Born in Basra (located in what is now Iraq) in 965, Ibn al-Haytham—known in the West as or —wrote more than 200 books and treatises on a wide range of subjects. He was the first person to apply algebra to geometry, founding the branch mathematics known as analytic geometry.

Ibn al-Haytham’s use of experimentation was an outgrowth of his skeptical nature and his Muslim faith. He believed that human beings are flawed and only God is perfect. To discover the truth about nature, he reasoned, one had to allow the universe to speak for itself. “The seeker after truth is not one who studies the writings of the ancients and, following his natural disposition, puts his trust in them," Ibn al-Haytham wrote in Doubts Concerning Ptolemy, “but rather the one who suspects his faith in them and questions what he gathers from them, the one who submits to argument and demonstration."

To test his hypothesis that “lights and colors do not blend in the air," for example, Ibn al-Haytham devised the world's first camera obscura, observed what happened when light rays intersected at its aperture, and recorded the results. This is just one of dozens of “true demonstrations," or experiments, contained in Kitb al-Manzir.

By insisting on the use of verifiable experiments to test hypotheses, Ibn al-Haytham established a new system of inquiry—the scientific method—and earned a place in history as the .

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