Optics 1

Structure of the Eye. Image: OpenStax College, 2013-06-19.

This weblog post is the first of a series of nine about optics and optical instruments. Five of these will be posted in 2024-06, and four in 2025-01. This post presents some definitions, and some elementary theory behind optics. #Optics 2 is about eyes and eye diseases; #3 is about eye prescriptions; #4 is about eyeglasses. Later topics include: #5 is about safety glasses; # 6 is about cameras; #7 is about binoculars and monoculars; # 8 is about astronomical telescopes; and, #9 is about microscopes.

There are two approaches to optics that can be taken: Here it is about visual perception, the eyes, and how they sense, rather than on the natural (or even the artificial) production of phenomena, such as light and colour, that can be observed.

Readers are advised against starting any study of optics with Greek philosophers. This will be discussed later in this weblog post. Instead, it they want a historical approach, an appropriate place to begin is The Book of Optics (1011-1021), a seven-volume treatise on optics and some other subjects by Ibn al-Haytham, (965–c. 1040) = Alhazen/ Alhacen, a medieval Arab scholar.

Ibn al-Haytham was the first to correctly explain the theory of vision, and to argue that vision occurs in the brain, noting that it is subjective and affected by personal experience. He stated the principle of least time for refraction that links ray optics and wave optics: the path taken by a ray between two given points is the path that can be traveled in the least time = Fermat’s principle. He made major contributions to catoptrics = the branch of optics dealing with the reflection of light from plane or curved mirrors, and dioptrics = refraction, especially by lenses. More generally, Ibn al-Haytham contended that a hypothesis must be supported by experiments based on confirmable procedures and/ or mathematical reasoning.

Content. Book I: theories about light, colours and vision; Book II: theory of visual perception; Book III: ideas on the errors in visual perception; Book IV and Book V provide experimental evidence for theories about reflection; Book VI: errors related to reflection; Book VII: the concept of refraction.

An appropriate next stop is the English bishop Robert Grosseteste (c. 1175–1253) who wrote on a wide range of scientific topics, that included On Light (1235), which is viewed from four different perspectives: epistemology, metaphysics/ cosmogony, etiology/ physics and theology. All of these take their inspiration from Genesis 1:3: God said, let there be light, Creation is seen as a natural physical process arising from an expanding/ contracting sphere of light.

A third stop is Roger Bacon (c. 1214–1294), an English Franciscan, who was influenced by Grosseteste’s writings. Perspectiva, Tractatus de multiplicatione specierum (<1267) = Tract on the Multiplication of Species, and De speculis comburentibus = On Burning Lenses are all writings about optics. His mathematical analysis of light/ vision was influenced by Ibn al-Haytham.

An erect image = one that appears right-side up. The opposite is an inverted image = one that appears upside down. Some telescopes and other devices including the camera obscura present an inverted image. Mirrors and compound prism elements can be used to transform an inverted image into an erect image.


Many times theorists have a difficult time explaining their subject so that it is understandable for a broader audience. At that point it is good to have other people around who are able to communicate ideas. Here are some of those people in the field of optics.

Peter of Limoges (1240–1306), in Tractatus Moralis de Oculo = A Moral Treatise on the Eye, popularized Bacon’s writings on optics.

John Pecham (ca. 1230 – 1292 ) wrote the most widely used optics textbook in the Middle Ages: Perspectiva communis. His book centered on the question of vision, on how we see. Pecham followed the model set forth by Ibn al-Haytham, but interpreted Ibn al-Haytham’s ideas in the manner of Roger Bacon.


When it comes to optics, early Greek philosophers are to be avoided. Empedocles (c. 494 – c. 434 BC) believed Aphrodite made the human eye out of the four elements = earth, air, fire, and water. She lit the fire in the eye which shone out from it, making sight possible. This would mean that it should be possible to see equally well in darkness as in light, which is not the case. He believed there were two different types of emanations that interacted: one from an object to the eye, another from the eye to an object.

In philosophy, William of Ockham (ca. 1287 – 1347) postulated Ockham’s razor , a problem-solving principle that recommends searching for simple explanations = the principle/ law of parsimony. It is expressed as: Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity. It is often paraphrased as the simplest explanation is usually the best one. These Greek explanations contradict this advice.

There are few contemporary references to Euclid (c 300 BC) about optics. There are questions about the attributions of many of his works. He is believed to have written two books related to optics. Catoptrics, about the mathematical theory of mirrors, particularly images formed in plane and spherical concave mirrors. Optics is the earliest surviving Greek treatise on perspective, including an introduction to geometrical optics and basic rules of perspective.

Claudius Ptolemy (c. 100 – c. 170) of Greco-Egyptian ethnicity and Roman citizenship, flourished in Alexandria. Robert R. Newton (1918 – 1991) in The Crime of Claudius Ptolemy (1977) challenged Ptolemy’s observations and asserted that Ptolemy fabricated many of these to fit his theories. Newton accused Ptolemy of systematically inventing/ doctoring data, and called him the most successful fraud in the history of science.

Winer et al (2002) have found that up to 50% of adults in the early years of this millennium believed in emission theory. The easiest way to refute it is to note that if emission theory were true, it would be possible to observe objects in the dark equally well as objects in the daylight. I find there is a significant difference between these.

Note: In 2024-03 and 2024-04 I systematically investigated various topics related to optics. Much of it had to do with Trish having an eye examination on 2024-04-18. By 2024-04-09 at 20:11 I had decided where this series was going, and scheduled this post to be published 2024-06-01 at 12:00. We also decided that we needed new and lighter binoculars and a spotting scope so that we could be better oriented about the wildlife in our neighbourhood. In particular, I wanted to follow a pair of cranes (Grus grus), birds that live near us during the summer.

Corrections: On 2024-06-08, at about 18:40, the number of posts about optics in 2024-06 was increased from 4 to 5, while the number was decreased from 5 to 4 in 2025-01.

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