Sustainability Science

At the UN, the legacy of Ibn Al-Haytham inspires young people

As part of youth forum, an International Year of Light celebration highlights the importance of education and multicultural exchange

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The United Nations hosted an event to celebrate the International Year of Light with a tribute to the 11th-century scientist Ibn al-Haytham by the international educational organization 1001 Inventions. (Photos by Alison Bert)

Rahma Ahmed, a student at Bard High School Early College, and Ayla Ojjeh, a media and politics student at NYU, listen to the presentation. They were both enrolled in the ECOSOC Youth Forum.Rahma Ahmed of Staten Island says she is passionate about science but never gets the full story at school. None of the scientists in her textbooks are from the Middle East, for example. So the daughter of Egyptian parents penned a question in her notebook while sitting in the back of a large auditorium at the UN headquarters in New York.

She was one of nearly 300 to attend an event hosted by the United Nations to celebrate the International Year of Light (IYL2015). The celebration – a side event to the 2016 ECOSOC Youth Forum – centered on a tribute to the 11th-century scientist Ibn al-Haytham by the international educational organization 1001 Inventions. Al-Haytham lived during the epoch dubbed by historians as the Golden Age of Muslim Civilization, which spanned from Spain to China and included extraordinary scientists and scholars of various cultures and faiths. His story was used to show the importance of education and intercultural dialogue.

The speakers

  • H.E. Ambassador Abdallah Y. Al-Mouallimi, Permanent Representative of Saudi Arabia to the UN
  • Ahmed Salim, Managing Director, 1001 Inventions
  • Almad Alhendawi, UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth
  • Marie-Paule Roudil, Director of UNESCO Office in New York
  • Nihal Saad, Chief of Cabinet and Spokesperson for the High Representative of the UN Alliance of Civilizations
  • Elizabeth A. Rogan, CEO of The Optical Society OSA, spoke about light and light-based technologies as practical solutions to global challenges

Distinguished representatives of UN delegations and international organizations addressed the audience, which included high school and college students, delegations attending the Youth Forum, representatives from Permanent Missions to the UN, representatives of NGOs and the media.

Various speakers pointed out the hardships facing youth around the world, including war, violence and hunger, and the ability of education and science to address these challenges. The overarching goal was to inspire young people to be inquisitive and to take actions towards implementing the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

“The achievements of Ibn al-Haytham and his peers serve as an inspiration to youth as they take action to implement the Sustainable Development Goals,” said Ahmad Alhendawi, the UN Secretary-General's Envoy on Youth, in his opening remarks.

Ahmed Salim, 1001 Inventions Director and Producer, said the International Year of Light “commemorated important milestones in the history of the science of light, most notably approximately a thousand years since the great works on optics by the pioneering scientist Ibn al-Haytham.”

The tribute to Ibn al-Haytham featured a preview screening of legendary actor Omar Sharif’s final film, 1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn Al-Haytham. And throughout the event, the panelists spoke of al-Haytham’s seminal contributions to the understanding of vision, optics and light.

The speakers (left to right): Nihal Saad, Chief of Cabinet and Spokesperson for the High Representative of the UN Alliance of Civilizations; Almad Alhendawi, UN Secretary-General's Envoy on Youth; H.E. Ambassador Abdallah Y. Al-Mouallimi, Permanent Representative of Saudi Arabia to the UN; Marie-Paule Roudil, Director of UNESCO Office in New York; Ahmed Salim, Managing Director, 1001 Inventions; and Elizabeth A. Rogan, CEO of The Optical Society OSA.

Ahmed Salim, Managing Director of 1001 Inventions, speaks about engaging youth from around the world, especially those in underrepresented groups.Alhendawi pointed out that al-Haytham started his scientific career at a young age, and while he was a pioneer of optics, his contribution was about “not only light but enlightenment.” He urged the audience to look at the Golden Age of Muslim Civilization, which included extraordinary scientists of many religions, and ask, “What conditions were in place that would allow all those scientists to contribute?”

Elizabeth A. Rogan, CEO of the USA-based Optical Society (OSA), highlighted how optical technologies are helping improve the quality of life worldwide – from medical technology and cheap eye glasses to generating clean energy to providing solar reading light for the billion-plus people with no electricity.

Hanan Dowidar, Head of Strategic Partnerships for 1001 Inventions, said organizing the program with the ECOSOC Youth Forum was very important. “One of our key objectives is to help inspire youth to rise up to the challenges of the 21st century,” she said. “The story of Ibn al-Haytham … also offers a unique opportunity to highlight to young people the importance of intercultural dialogue, mutual understanding and respect.”

Nelson Igunma of Brooklyn, who was participating in the ECOSOC Youth Forum, listens to the presentation.

Before the event, Nelson Igunma of Brooklyn, whose parents are from Nigeria, said he was particularly interested in the intercultural aspect.

“We don’t hear about the scientists, doctors, engineers and teachers from the Middle East, and they are doing good work every day,” said Igunma, who works for an educational start-up and spent last year working in India for a social impact incubator.

During the Q&A, Rahma Ahmed of Staten Island, who is in her second year at Bard High School Early College, raised her hand and read the question from her notebook:

In elementary, middle and high school, my textbooks were always biased. What sources can we use to assure we do not have an obscured view of the history of science? How can we, the youth, keep ourselves informed about all the contributors to science? And how can we put the contributions of other scientists in context (like that of Ibn al-Haytham) so we know how they fit into what we learned in school.

Salim said this was a key objective of 1001 Inventions. Part of it involves reaching out to book publishers, and part involves working with governments around the world to see how they can improve the curriculum. However, when it comes to developing the materials, he said research was key.

“It’s a new area of research, so we rely on the research,” he said. “We need more historians of science and civilization because without them doing the work, we’re not able to publish our content. The more research is available, the more we have access to develop this material.”

Queen Mother Dr. Delois Blakely, Community Mayor of Harlem, poses a question during the sessionTapping the potential of “young innovators” was top of mind for Queen Mother Dr. Delois Blakely, Community Mayor of Harlem, Ambassador of Goodwill to Africa and Founder of the New Future Foundation. She asked: “How do we include them so that they can build on what we know … and move forward for sustainable development in their own environment?”

Salim responded by saying, “We need a whole forum for that,” drawing laughter from the crowd.

But he went on to say that while there are many inspired young people, “There needs to be a call to action. Where is the call to action? This is a huge challenge.” He said it was important to work with other organizations, mentioning the International Year of Light as a “key partner” that helped challenge young people around the world, especially from “underrepresented” groups. He added that studies have shown that engaging these underrepresented students is crucial, and it’s important to provide guidance to educators.

Ayla Ojjeh, a media and politics student at NYU originally from Damascus, Syria, said education is crucial. Ojjeh, who works for the NGO Manhattan Multicultural Counseling, said she was especially concerned about the young people from her country. “I hope I can help empower Syrian youth and set them up for a better education,” she said. “We’re going to raise a very dangerous generation if we don’t educate them well.”

Watch the trailer

Last year, 1001 Inventions’ educational campaign about Ibn Al-Haytham reached 25 million people worldwide, according to 1001 Inventions. It includes the film 1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn Al-Haytham, featuring the final appearance of legendary actor Omar Sharif; the National Geographic children’s book on Ibn al-Haytham; a music album and video based on the film by international acclaimed musician Sami Yusuf; and interactive exhibits, hands-on workshops and learning materials.

Here, you can watch a trailer for the film.

The International Year of Light

The International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies was a global initiative adopted by the UN to raise awareness of how optical technologies promote sustainable development and provide solutions to worldwide challenges in energy, education, agriculture, communications and health. It brought together many members of the scientific community, including societies, educational institutions, technology providers, nonprofit organizations, and private sector partners, among these 1001 Inventions, which was a founding partner, and Elsevier.


Elsevier Connect Editor-in-Chief

Alison Bert, DMADr. Alison Bert (@AlisonBert) joined Elsevier in 2007 from the world of journalism, where she was a business reporter for The Journal News, a Gannett daily newspaper in New York. As Editor-in-Chief of Elsevier Connect, she works with people around the world to publish daily stories for the global science and health communities.

In the previous century, Alison was a classical guitarist on the music faculty of Syracuse University. She received a doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, was Fulbright scholar in Spain, and studied in a master class with Andrés Segovia.

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