Optics: The True Nature of Light


6 Oct 2015

History of Science

Jim al-Khalili

Jim al-Khalili leads this first episode of a 6-part documentary on science and its history in the Middle East.  He looks at the works and processes of several 11th-century Islamicate scientists who worked on optics and the nature of light.  He contextualizes this in today’s Middle East with a visit with contemporary scientists both in and from the Middle East.

The episode discusses Ibn al-Haytham (d. ca. 1040 CE), “the father of modern optics”.  2015 marked the one thousandth anniversary of Ibn al-Haytham’s seven-volume work, Kitāb al-Manāẓir (The Book of Optics).  Al-Khalili recreates a pinhole camera (camera obscura) at Cambridge University, and shows how it led Ibn Haytham to discoveries about the nature of light.  Ibn l-Haytham was noted for “putting mathematical flesh” on the bones provided through careful experimentation.

Al-Khalili also discusses Ibn Sahl (d. 1000), another scientist who worked during the Abbasid era, who correctly described “Snell’s law of refraction” long before Willebrord Snellius published it in seventeenth century Europe.

Also discussed is Ibn Muʿādh (d. 1079, al-Andalus) who worked on the height of the atmosphere using both optics and geometry.

The historical material is linked with contemporary studies through SESAME, Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East, an electron accelerator in Jordon.  As al-Khalili walks around the site, he meets with a few scientists and talks about their experiments.  He meets with researchers/curators from the Museum of the History of Science and Technology in Islam, in Istanbul, Turkey.  He discusses the use of lasers for transmitting energy.

This series, first broadcast in the fall of 2015, focuses on topics that have both historical and contemporary components.  Many of the contemporary segments were filmed in Doha, Qatar, home for the al-Jazeera network.


Islam:  The material on Islam is within the bounds of what Muslims have historically understood as acceptable.

Science:  The science presented is consistent with a consensus of contemporary scientists.

History:  The history presented is consistent with a consensus of contemporary historians.

About Jim al-Khalili

Born September 20, 1962 in Baghdad, Iraq, Jim Al Khalili is a renowned theoretical physicist, writer, lecturer, and broadcaster. Growing up with a devout Christian mother and a slightly agnostic Muslim father, Al-Khalili now describes himself as a “cuddly atheist.” He immigrated to the United Kingdom in 1979, and completed both a bachelors of science and a Ph.D. in nuclear reaction theory at the University of Surrey. Khalili remained at the University of Surrey, and as of 2015 is still a professor of physics there. In addition, he holds a chair in Public Engagement in Science Department.

Khalili conducts research into quantum physics and quantum biology, but is most well known for his accessibly written, popular science books and his regular appearances as a TV presenter for science documentaries. Khalili is also a radio broadcaster for BBC4, presenting ‘The Life Scientific’ weekly. His list of accomplishments and awards are long, though most notably he was the youngest person to ever receive the Royal Society’s Michael Faraday prize for science communication in 2008 and also received the Institute of Physics Kelvin Medal in 2011. Khalili also became President of the British Humanist Association in 2013.

As of 2015, Khalili operates an active Twitter page and a personal website. In addition, he periodically writes for The Guardian newspaper; however, his most recent post there was in December 2014. Khalili’s personal website is host to his blog and a collection of his various science communication efforts.

Selected Bibliography:

Al-Khalili, Jim. Jim Al-Khalili’s Website. N.p., n.d. Accessed 1 June 2015.

Al-Khalili, Jim. Twitter. Twitter, n.d.

“Jim Al-Khalili.” Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2012. Biography in Context. Accessed 1 June 2015.

Peck, Tom. “Jim Al-Khalili: ‘I’m a Cuddly Atheist. I Don’t Need to Tell My Mum Her Faith Is Stupid’” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 23 Dec. 2012. Accessed 1 June 2015.

President of the British Humanist Association.” British Humanist Association. British Humanist Association, n.d. Accessed 1 June 2015.

Professor Jim Al-Khalili OBE.” Professor Jim Al-Khalili OBE. The Royal Society, n.d. Accessed 1 June 2015.