Tag Archives: Light

Ibn al-Haytham to Maxwell: A Long Road

As the Chinese proverb says “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. The journey that started with Ibn al-Haytham experimenting with his Camera Obscura in the eleventh century was completed eight hundred years later by James Clerk Maxwell and Heinrich Hertz. While Maxwell laid down the mathematical framework that described the behavior of Electromagnetic waves, Hertz conclusively proved the existing of these invisible waves through his experiments. There were several scientists on the way that played a crucial part in development of this Electromagnetic theory such as Gauss, Faraday and Ampere. Then there were others such as Huygens, Fresnel and Young who worked on nature of light, which was not known to be an Electromagnetic wave at that time. Once the theory  of Electromagnetic wave propagation was in place there was rapid progress in many fields, particularly in wireless communications (wireless telegraph, radio, radar etc.).

Maxwell’s equations that were proposed in 1861 were initially quite circuitous and were not well accepted. But later on these equations were simplified into the form we now know by Oliver Heaviside. There are still two popular forms of the equations, the integral form and the differential form. We present the integral form of these equations in this article as it is more intuitive and is also easier to represent graphically. The differential form requires understanding of the concepts of divergence and curl and we skip it in this article. The main take away from these equations (presented below) is that a changing Electric field produces a Magnetic field and a changing Magnetic field produces an Electric field. Another important result is that magnetic monopoles do not exist (simply put a magnet, however small, always has a north and south pole).

Maxwell's Equations in Integral Form
Maxwell’s Equations in Integral Form


  1. The dot product with a line segment means that only that component of the field vector is effective that is along the line segment. On the other hand the dot product with a surface means that only that component is considered that is perpendicular to the surface (since the unit vector of a surface is perpendicular to the surface). It means that only those field components are considered that are going perpendicularly in or out of the surface.
  2. For more on history of Maxwell equations visit IEEE Spectrum  and for a detailed explanation of the various forms of the Maxwell’s equations visit this page.
  3. In modern Electromagnetic simulation software the differential form is preferred and the algorithm used is called Finite Difference Time Domain (FDTD). However, if the area of interest is quite large (with respect to the wavelength) then the FDTD method becomes prohibitively complex and another method known as Ray-Tracing is used. Please do check out the Ray-Tracing engine that we have developed. Ray-Tracing is becoming increasingly important in RF Planning of Telecom Networks.

Ibn al-Haytham – The Father of Optics

Whenever we read about the history of optics or in general electromagnetics we hear two names again and again, these are James Clerk Maxwell and Heinrich Rudolf Hertz. The discoveries of these two gentlemen although very important to development of Physics were very recent (about 150 years old). But the history of optics is much older and the basics of this field were etched in stone about a 1000 years back. One of the people responsible for the early development of this field was Arab mathematician, astronomer, and physicist ibn al-Haytham (c. 965 – c. 1040).

Ibn al-Haytham in his book referred to as the Book of Optics (Kitāb al-Manāẓir) postulated that light travels in form of rays in straight lines and these rays are reflected by objects which makes these objects visible when the rays enter the human eye. Ibn al-Haytham rejected an earlier theory proposed by Ptolemy and widely accepted by the scholars of that time that light rays emanate from the human eye which makes objects visible. Ibn al-Haytham studied the phenomenon of reflection and refraction of rays of light in his laboratory (he studied lenses, experimented with different mirrors: flat, spherical, parabolic, cylindrical, concave and convex). He also used the Camera Obscura in his experiments to show that light rays travel in straight lines. He studied the working of the human eye and was able to make some valuable contributions.

Camera Obscura
Camera Obscura

Other than optics ibn al-Haytham made significant contributions to number theory, geometry, astronomy and natural philosophy. Ibn al-Haytham wrote more than 200 works on a wide range of subjects but most of his works are now lost. Only about 96 are known and about 55 have survived to some extent. Those related to the subject of light include The Light of the Moon, The Light of the Stars, The Rainbow and the Halo, Spherical Burning Mirrors, Parabolic Burning Mirrors, The Burning Sphere, The Shape of the Eclipse, The Formation of Shadows, Discourse on Light, as well as his masterpiece, Book of Optics. It was through Latin and Hebrew translations that most of his important work survived.

UNESCO declared 2015 the International Year of Light and ibn al-Haytham was dubbed as the ‘the father of optics’. This was to celebrate ibn Al-Haytham’s achievements in optics, mathematics and astronomy. In honor of him, the Aga Khan University (Pakistan) named its Ophthalmology endowed chair as “The Ibn-e-Haytham Associate Professor and Chief of Ophthalmology”. The crater Alhazen (latin form of his name) on the Moon is named in his honour, as is the asteroid 59239 Alhazen.

PS: An interesting story about ibn al-Haytham is that he proposed to build a dam on the Nile to restrict the flooding it caused but realized soon that it was impossible to solve this problem with the available resources. Ibn al-Haytham feigned madness so as to not upset the ruler (al-Hakim, the Fatimid caliph in Egypt). Legend has it that he was put into confinement in the city of Cairo near Al Azhar University and it is here that he worked on his theories of optics. Al Azhar University still survives today as one of the greatest and oldest university in the world.