Reflections on the Optics of Time

by Charles Savage Published on: 30th May 2011

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Based on the outstanding achievement of Ibn al-Haytham's work in optics, which paved the way for the "Optics of Space," Dr. Charles M. Savage develops in this stimulating article a vibrant plea for the need for a complementary understanding of the "Optics of Time." The reflection argues that time is ripe for a mature and open appreciation of the gift of life on this planet, otherwise we stand the risk of abusing one another and the richness of the resources nature has stored up for us. In so doing, we can implement a vision of a "sustainable history," an important concept introduced by Prof. Nayef al-Rodham. This will require our reflective abilities to co-create a "sustainable future" as well.


Dr. Charles M. Savage*

Note of the editor

This is an edited version of the lecture presented by Dr. Charles M. Savage in the Muslim Heritage Awareness Group (MHAG) meeting organized by FSTC at the Royal Society in London on the 30th of March 2011.


The Muslim Heritage Awareness Group wishes to pose a question, in the spirit of Ibn al-Haytham’s important work on optics related to the “Optics of Time.”

“Today, conventional wisdom accepts SPACE as having three dimensions, while TIME, a single point on a line (i.e. The Arrow of Time), and has just one dimension. Is this really correct? If not, what is the “Optics of Time?”

Exactly a thousand years ago, Ibn al-Haytham began experiments that lead to his Book of Optics. He put into question theories about optics that were, in turn, about a thousand years old, that is those of Aristotle, Euclid and Ptolemy. Aristotle’s theory, the intromission theory, assumed physical forms entered our eyes from the objects. Euclid and Ptolemy believed in the emission theory that is that our eyes emit rays of light that is than reflected back to us.

Instead he showed, using experimentation and logic that we see thanks to the rays of light proceeding to the eye from each point on an object. He also showed what happens within the eyes themselves (see Figure 1). For this, he has been recognized as the “father of modern optics” as well as being seen as the pioneer of the modern scientific method. In essence, he used a phenomenological approach where he let the phenomena speak in their own terms.

Figure 1: Ibn al-Haytham’s Sketch of the Human Optical System. The oldest known drawing of the nervous system from Kitab al-Manazir of Ibn al-Haytham (from a manuscript held in the Süleymaniye Library, Istanbul), in which the eyes and optic nerves are illustrated. It shows a large nose at the bottom, eyes on both side and a hollow optic nerve that flows out of each one towards the back of the brain. (Source).

Thanks to his pioneering work, we understand objects in “Space and Place.” In fact, due to our ability to see, Space has seemingly won priority in our understanding of Time. Few questioned Newton when he published in 1687 his Pricipica Mathematica, asserting, among other things, that Space and Time are separate and absolute.

It was not until 1905 that people realized, thanks to Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, that Space and Time are connected and relative. Nevertheless, Space seems to have retained its primacy, while Time remains shrouded in a bit of mystery, first noticed by Augustine in his Confessions. In 1908, Herman Minkowski pictured Einstein’s new theory in a presentation in terms of the “Worldline” (Figure 2). Thanks to the evolution of timekeeping, people assume Time and the clock are the same. But are they really? How do we really “see” Time?

We know the major Paradigm Shifts do not change reality, but they simply clear up our misunderstanding of this reality. This happened in the shift from Ptolemy’s geocentric view to the heliocentric view of Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler, made possible, in part, by their study of Arabic manuscripts of earlier centuries, including those of al-Battani and al-Zarqali, Muslim astronomers of the 10th and 11th centuries.

Certainly Abbott’s “Flatland,” is a reminder of how we can go from a “point” to “lineland” to “flatland” and onto a 3D spatial world. But what if 3D Time were to enter our world much as the Sphere entered the 2D world of the Square? Would we be ready to accept another perspective, or would we throw the messenger into prison as happened to the Square when he carefully wanted to tell his 2D colleagues of about the third dimension?

Ibn al-Haytham inspired an essential paradigm shift in the “Optics of Space.” Is the time not ripe for such a shift regarding the “Optics of Time?”

Figure 2: Minkowski’s Worldline based upon Einstein’s SpaceTime. In his paper of 1905 on Special Relativity, Einstein brought together space and time and showed they are relative rather than being separate and absolute as Newton had suggested. In 1908, Hermann Minkowski captured Einstein’s thinking in this graphic, showing time as a dot on the moving Worldline.

It is remarkable how members of the Royal Society have remained on the frontier of reflection about our life on this planet. Newton’s contributions are still appreciated as are those of Einstein. In 1973 in Krakow at the 500th birthday celebration of Copernicus, Brandon Carter proposed the “Anthropic Principle” to answer the assumptions of the Copernican Principle. Copernicus’s work suggested humans are not privileged observers in the universe. Carter, on the other hand, challenged Copernicus, suggesting that if a number of key factors in our universe were not just what they are, we would not be here as reflective beings. His concept has stirred up much debate. Roger Penrose has written in The Emperor’s New Mind: “The argument can be used to explain why the conditions happen to be just right for the existence of (intelligent) life on the earth at the present time.” And Lord Martin Rees, past president of the Royal Society, has documented some of the conditions that have made life possible in his book, Just Six Numbers. Lord Rees has also expressed concern that we are not using our reflective abilities adequately enough to sustain our opportunities on this planet in his book, Our Final Hour.

This suggests a need for exploring the Optics of Time. Without a mature and open appreciation of the gift of life on this planet, we stand the risk of abusing one another and the richness of resources nature has stored up for us, especially when we could well remain on our planet for the next 500 million to a billion years, that is until the sun is so hot that all water evaporates. Perhaps is this why the key concept of Prof. Nayef al-Rodhan, “sustainable history,” is so important? To this, we might add the need to use our reflective abilities to co-create a “sustainable future” as well.

Figure 3: Ibn al-Haytham’s Camera Obscura. The concept of the Camera Obscura as perceived a thousand years ago by Ibn al-Haytham, who coined the Arabic term. Note the formation of the inverted image through a ray diagram. Illustration of the Camera Obscura in 1001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in Our World (chief editor Salim Al-Hassani), Manchester: FSTC, 2008, 2nd Edition, ISBN: 9780955242618, p. 29. See also The Year of Ibn al-Haytham (published 15/02/2011) and Ahmed H. Zewail, Micrographia of the twenty-first century: from Camera Obscura to 4D microscopy (The Royal Society, 2010).

In the Optics of Space, we are dealing with the characteristics of light and vision. In the Optics of Time, we are really dealing with the light of remembering the Past, understanding and reflecting upon the Present and the abilities to envision possibilities in the Future. Let us suppose for a minute that Time is not a black dot on the Arrow of Time, but instead, the Past, Present and Future are symbolized by the three primary colors, red, blue and green. When they come together in a Venn arrangement, white light is revealed in the middle and becomes the source of new creative insights.

In the light of seeing within our mind’s eye the confluence and interplay of these three elements, we can both draw upon the wisdom of the Past which inspires us, see what is indeed happening in the Present through reflection and envision possibilities in the Future, which than can be co-created within a community.

Figure 4: The Dynamics of 3D Time. 3D TIME comes alive in a VENN arrangement of the Past, Present and Future. Were they to remain separate, we would not see the secondary colors, yellow, cyan and magenta, nor would white appear. Unlike Space, Time best comes alive through active dialogue and reflection in community with others. Source: The Author.

For this to work, the individual will move from a passive observer to an active participant. She or he will need deep and abiding curiosity aided by powerful questions. As the patterns emerge, these persons will need to have the authenticity and courage to move ahead in co-creating a world that will bring opportunity to our great grandchildren and theirs. In the course of this engagement, individuals will find they need one another to help understand the past, clarify the present and envision the future. Engagement in these activities will bring an inner richness for the individuals and community and allow us to dramatically lessen our carbon footprints, thus leading to a more “sustainable history,” as Nayef al-Rodhan suggests. He also suggests the “Ocean Model” where we are enriched by the insights of our various world sub-cultures. In so doing, we may find the images within Ibn al-Haytham’s Camera Obscura become real, compelling and the inspiration sources for co-creating a wiser future. Sir Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) would have understood this well. For him, time “is not a string of separate, reversible instances; it is an organic whole.”

Perhaps it is time to set up a virtual “House of Wisdom” similar to that set up by Caliph Harum al-Rashid in Baghdad in the early 800s; in essence this would be the Ocean Model made real. Had these scholars not discovered the zero within India’s reflective Vedic culture, we would have no computers today. Had they not captured the wisdom of the Greeks, we might not have had the Renaissance in the West. Today we can ask how the Australian Aborigines were able to live so well in harmony with nature for 40,000 years. And there are many more questions that, using the Optics of Time, we can bring into focus.

One other option may well be to fall into a black hole of our own making, where we use up the oil, gas and coal which nature prepared for us over a hundred million years in just 400 years.

Figure 5: Our Human Authored Black Hole. Photography Oxford Tire Pile No. 4, by Edward Burtynsky (Westley, California, 1999). (Nature + kosmos magazine, Leinfelden-Echterdingen, Germany, April 2011).

The other is to look back over the past 1,000 years at the powerful and insightful work of Ibn al-Haytham and his discoveries in the Optics of Space, might we look ahead to many more than just 1,000 years through the lenses of the Optics of Time to co-create a reflective, open and affirming global community for all, now and for the next 500 million years? To do this, we’ll need a new virtual House of Wisdom and the reflective power of thousands, no millions. In addition, where we to bring together the 1001 Inventions of the Arabs and Muslims [see] with similar exhibitions from China [see] and a yet to be created exhibition from India [based on these inventions: see] In addition, we might consider an Institute to work out the Optics of Time.

It is nice that we can be bold to envision these possibilities at this MHAG meeting at the Royal Society on March 30, 2011. It feels as if the virtual House of Wisdom is already alive.

*Dr. Charles M. Savage (Munich, Germany) is an author, speaker and teacher in several MBA programs in different countries. He keynoted the first Arabian Knowledge Economy meeting, has spoken at and led Discovery Shops in Dubai and Saudi Arabia and is a member of the Muslim Heritage Awareness Group.

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