I Wish I’d Been There
By Aliza Moledina
It was the year 1006: the time of the Fatimid Imam-Caliph Al-Hakim. Ibn Ridwan, a mere boy of eighteen observed an unexplainable yet striking phenomenon that would be studied by western scientists more than a thousand years later: it was determined by these modern scientists to be the brightest supernova or explosion of a star in known history. Ibn Ridwan’s detailed observations and records of the intensity and pattern of the star were the basis of scientific discovery countless years later. Ibn Ridwan’s astronomical observations provide another example of the importance of Fatimid scholars to today’s world of science and discovery, creating an inspiring intellectual bond between modern and Fatimid science.
This ‘new star’ or rather the death of an old star, known today as SN1006, appeared on April 30, 1006. Ibn Ridwan made the following observations:
“the sun on that day was 15 degrees in Taurus and the spectacle in the 15th degree of Scorpio. This spectacle was a large circular body, two and a half to three times as large as Venus. The sky was shining because of its light. The intensity of light was a little more than a quarter of that of moonlight. It remained where it was and it moved daily with its zodiacal sign until the sun was in sextile with it in Virgo, when it disappeared once.” [From Bernard R Goldstein’s translation]
Ibn Ridwan then also precisely detailed the positions of the sun, moon and other planets.
It was Ibn Ridwan’s descriptions that prompted scientists more than a thousand years later to calculate the brightness of SN1006. His comparison of the brightness of the historic supernova to both Venus and the moon gave scientists a better idea of the characteristics and nature of SN1006. Using the logarithmic scale of brightness, scientists, particularly Middlebury College astrophysicist Frank Winkler, were able to label SN1006 as the brightest supernova in recorded history. Winkler stated that SN1006 was about a “hundred times brighter than Jupiter ever gets,” or “250 times brighter than Sirius,” the brightest star in the sky. The angle that it appeared in the atmosphere would also have contributed to its magnificent luminosity.
The astrophysicists used Ibn Ridwan’s data to isolate the location of the star, and detect it within space. Winkler estimated SN1006 to be approximately 7000 light years from Earth.
It is interesting to note that although Ibn Ridwan believed strongly in the significance of astronomy, he chose to pursue medicine as a career. In fact, in his autobiography he noted that “the astronomical omens at my birth indicated that medicine should be my profession.” Indeed, he did pursue medicine, becoming so renowned that he was appointed chief physician to Imam al-Hakim.
As a student currently studying science in university, I Wish I’d Been There to have personally witnessed this spectacular phenomenon. It would have truly been an unforgettable experience to witness Ibn Ridwan recording his observations. Though Ibn Ridwan was only eighteen at the time, his detailed tracking of SN1006 paved the road for future discoveries. His observations connect generations of individuals and provide a unique and significant bond between ancient and modern science.
1. The Scholars Supernova by Margaret Donsbach, Saudi Aramco World, July/August 2006 (Volume 57, Number 4)
2. Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers and Artists by Michael H. Morgan, National Geographic Books, 2007
About the writer: Aliza Moledina is a first year student currently pursuing a dual degree in Medical Sciences and Honours Business Administration from the University of Western Ontario. Over the past few years, her passion for science led her to produce several science fair projects. For example, in her last project “Heart Race: the Electrocardiogram,” she built an ECG to measure the heart’s electrical impulses. This project won her second place in Biotechnology at the Ottawa Regional Science Fair. In her free time, Aliza loves to read and write as well as perform several forms of dance.
Aliza has also contributed an article on Fatimid Art for this Web site. Please click Literary Reading: Fatimid Rock Crystal Ewers, Most Valuable Objects in Islamic Art
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