2010 John Frederick Lewis Award

Autumn General Meeting
A. Mark Smith

The American Philosophical Society awarded the 2010 John Frederick Lewis Award to A. Mark Smith for his book Alhacen on Refraction: A Critical Edition, with English Translation and Commentary, of Book 7 of Alhacen's De Aspectibus, the Medieval Latin Version of Ibn al-Haytham's Kitab al-Manazir. The award was presented by Glen Bowersock, chair of the Lewis Award Committee and Professor Emeritus of Ancient History, Institute for Advanced Study.

Professor Smith teaches a variety of courses in medieval history as well as the history of science from antiquity to the late Enlightenment.  Broadly speaking, his interests lie in the field of intellectual history from the pre-Socratics to the Enlightenment, his scholarly focus being on the evolution of pre-Newtonian theories of visual perception.  He received his Ph.D. in 1976 from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he now holds a professorship.  He has published a number of other works with the American Philosophical Society, including Descartes's Theory of Light and Refraction (1987), Ptolemy's Theory of Visual Perception (1996), Ptolemy and the Foundations of Ancient Mathematical Optics (1999), and, naturally, the three texts which contain the first six books of De Aspectibus.

A. Mark Smith has worked with the American Philosophical Society on Alhacen's De Aspectibus for 10 years.  Alhacen's Theory of Visual Perception, which contained the first three books, was printed in 2001, Alhacen on the Principles of Reflection, which contained books four and five, was printed in 2006, and Alhacen on Image-Formation and Distortion in Mirrors, which contained book six, was printed in 2008.  In this final publication, Alhacen on Refraction, which translates the seventh and final book of the De Aspectibus, Alhacen undertakes a comprehensive analysis of refraction, starting with the basic phenomenon and its underlying principles, and ending with an explanation of the apparent displacement and size-distortion of celestial bodies caused by atmospheric refraction. Certainly the most intriguing portion of the De Aspectibus, book seven is also the most problematic in terms of questionable theoretical suppositions and the logical inconsistencies that flow from them.

Mark Smith’s publication of the Latin version of Ibn al-Haytham's Optics is one of the great contributions to the history of science of our time.  The edition is based upon an exhaustive examination of the manuscripts, the translation of the difficult, and at times obscure, text a model of clarity, and the introduction and commentary are exemplary in placing the work within the history of optics and explaining its technicalities and difficulties.  This is a work of scholarship that will endure and be consulted for ages.

In 1935 the Society established the John Frederick Lewis Award with funds donated by his widow.  The award recognizes the best book or monograph published by the Society in a given year.  The selection committee consisted of Glen W. Bowersock (chair), Professor Emeritus of Ancient History, Institute for Advanced Study; Helen F. North, Centennial Professor Classics Emerita, Swarthmore College; and Noel M. Swerdlow, Professor Emeritus of Astronomy and Astrophysics and of History, University of Chicago.