Science & Technology

Who Invented the Scientific Method? You've Probably Never Heard of Him

History is full of forgotten heroes. Sometimes that's because somebody else got credit for their work. Sometimes it's because they were women in a male-dominated world. And sometimes it's because a couple of continents *cough* Western society *cough* decided they didn't want to include them in the history books. Meet Ibn al-Haytham — the guy who basically invented Science with a capital S.

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A Little Method, A Little Madness

Ibn al-Haytham was born in what is now Basra, Iraq, sometime around 965 C.E., and around the dawn of the 11th century, he moved to Cairo, where he'd do his most influential work. Though the details are a bit fuzzy, we know two things about his time in Egypt. First, his intellectual prowess was immediately apparent to everyone around him. And second, he had a habit of biting off more than he could chew and angering the wrong people.

His first major project was a dam that would have regulated the flooding of the Nile, but it didn't take long for him to realize that it was impractical. He then got a plum administrative job that didn't go especially well either — and the Caliph wasn't pleased. According to a 13th-century account of how things went down, al-Haytham feigned madness to protect himself from the wrath of the ruler, who settled on placing him under house arrest instead of ordering a more ... dramatic retirement.

As it turned out, a comfortable prison full of scientific texts and tools was exactly what al-Haytham needed. Over the next decade, he proved that light travels in a straight line, he demonstrated how mirrors work, and he made the compelling (and correct) argument that light bends when it travels through water.

But probably his most impressive contribution to science was, well, science. Or at least, the scientific method. See, he didn't want to just tell the world what he'd found. He wanted to show the world how he found it — and he wanted the world to try out his experiments for themselves. So he meticulously documented his experiments in his 40+ academic works, which ranged in subject from the behavior of light to the motion of the planets to architecture and engineering.

The Giant Newton Stood On

These days, Ibn al-Haytham isn't exactly a household name in the West. But go back a couple hundred years, and Europeans were a little more willing to listen. His most influential work, the Book of Optics, was translated into Latin about 100 years after his death and proved to be a top-seller among Europe's favorite thinkers. Roger Bacon, Johannes Kepler, and even Leonardo da Vinci read his thoughts, although they mispronounced his name as "Alhazen" instead.

In fact, the "Selenographia," a 17th-century treatise on the nature of the Moon, put al-Haytham on the frontispiece alongside crowd favorite Galileo Galilei. There's no doubt that European science was transformed by al-Haytham's meticulous approach — and it's about time he starts getting his due.

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Curious about how much influence Arabic thinkers had on the developing science and philosophy of the West? So were we. So we picked up Jim Al-Khalili's "Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science" on Amazon. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas January 9, 2018

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