Colloquia, Public Lectures, & Invited Conference Talks

The Science of Optics; The History of Art
Charles M. Falco


Recently, renowned artist David Hockney observed that certain drawings and paintings from as early as the Renaissance seemed almost “photographic” in detail. Following an extensive visual investigation of western art of the past 1000 years, he made the revolutionary claim that artists even of the prominence of van Eyck and Bellini must have used optical aids. However, many art historians insisted there was no supporting evidence for such a remarkable assertion. In this talk I show a wealth of optical evidence for his claim that Hockney and I subsequently discovered during an unusual, and remarkably-productive, collaboration between an artist and a scientist. I also discuss the unique properties of the “mirror lens” (concave mirror), and some of the implications this work has for the history of science as well as the history of art (and the modern fields of machine vision and computerized image analysis). These discoveries convincingly demonstrate optical instruments were in use—by artists, not scientists—nearly 200 years earlier than previously even thought possible, and account for the remarkable transformation in the reality of portraits that occurred early in the 15th century.


My work was done in collaboration with David Hockney. I gratefully acknowledge Aimee Weintz Allen (University of Arizona), David Graves (London), Ultan Guilfoyle (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum), Martin Kemp (Oxford University), Masud Mansuripur (University of Arizona), Nora Roberts (née Pawlaczyk) (University of Arizona), José Sasián (University of Arizona), Richard Schmidt (Los Angeles), and Lawrence Weschler (The New Yorker) for a variety of valuable contributions to our efforts.

For additional information about this work, see my discussion, and download copies of our papers, on other pages on this web site.

Brief Biography

Charles Falco is a Professor of Optical Sciences and of Physics at theUniversity of Arizona where he holds the UA Chair of Condensed Matter Physics. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the Optical Society of America, and the Society of Photo-optical Instrumentation Engineers (SPIE), has published more than 250 scientific manuscripts, co-edited two books, has seven U.S. patents, and given over 400 invited talks at conferences and research institutions in 32 countries. In addition to his scientific work, since 1985 his photography has been represented by the agency Photo Researchers, and in 1998 he co-curated the award-winning “The Art of the Motorcycle” exhibition for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. For his work on optics and art, in 2006 the Optical Society of America selected him to be part of their OSA Traveling Lecturer outreach program, and in 2008 he presented the National Art Education Association’s Ziegfeld Lecture, awarded for his role in developing ‘The Hockney-Falco Thesis’. In 2011 he was appointed to the National Research Council Committee on Harnessing Light, charged with making recommendations for future directions in optics and photonics, for academic year 2011-2012 he was selected to be Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar, and in 2015 he was invited by UNESCO to speak on optics and art in the opening ceremony of the United Nations ‘International Year of Light’. Also in 2015 the Steering Committee of the UN International Year of Light appointed him to the International Working Group ‘Ibn al Haytham’ to highlight the Golden Age of Arab optics (to which he subsequently was elected Vice President), and the American Physical Society Awarded him the Dwight Nicholson Medal for Outreach with a citation that reads in part “…and his work with the renowned artist David Hockney on the optical science utilized by the grand master artists;…”


Click photo for a 350dpi image

Invited Talks on this Work

Universities and Research Institutions

American Institute of Physics [Lyne Starling Trimble Science Heritage PublicLecture]; Argonne National Laboratory [Physics Division]; Arizona State University [Physics, and Center for Medieval & Renaissance Studies]; Boston College [Computer Science, Fine Arts, Physics, and Psychology]; Boston University [Physics]; Centre College [Phi Beta Kappa Public Lecture]; Columbia University [Physics]; Dalhousie University [Physics]; Dartmouth College [Thayer School of Engineering]; DePauw University [Phi Beta Kappa Public Lecture]; Duke University [Fitzpatrick Center for Photonics]; Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory [Fermilab Colloquium]; Florida State University[Sir Neville Mott Memorial Lecture]; Georgetown University [Physics]; Iowa State University [Physics]; Kenyon College [Phi Beta Kappa Public Lecture]; King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, Saudi Arabia [Physics]; Lawrence University [Phi Beta Kappa Public Lecture]; Los Alamos National Laboratory [Director’s Colloquium]; Massachusetts Institute of Technology[Brain & Cognitive Sciences; Physics]; Miami University [Physics]; Minnesota State University Moorhead [Comstock Lecture; Honors Program]; NASA Goddard Space Flight Center [Goddard Engineering Colloquium]; National Institute of Standards and Technology [NIST Colloquium]; National Science Foundation [Distinguished Lecture in Mathematical and Physical Sciences]; New Mexico State University [Physics]; New York University [Physics]; Ohio University [Physics]; Optical Society of America [Connecticut Industry and Academic Chapter]; Princeton University [Louis Clark Vanuxem Lecture]; Ripon College [Phi Beta Kappa Public Lecture]; Rockford College [Phi Beta Kappa Public Lecture]; Saint Petersburg State University of Information Technologies, Mechanics and Optics (ITMO) [Natural Sciences], Russia; Santa Fe Institute [20th Anniversary Public Lecture Series; Community Lecture]; Simon Fraser University [History, Physics, and School of Contemporary Arts]; St. Olaf College [Phi Beta Kappa Public Lecture]; Texas A & M University [Physics]; Universidad Nacional de Rosario, Argentina [Faculty of Exact Sciences]; Université d’Orléans, France [CNRS and Physics]; University of Arizona [Alumni Association; Cognitive Psychology; Faculty Fellows Lecture; Museum of Art; Optical Sciences; Sociology; Sponsored Projects; andVice President for Research’s Faculty Community Lecture]; University of Arkansas [Art, Honors & Fulbright Colleges, and Physics]; University of California, Irvine [Physics]; University of California, Los Angeles [Physics]; University of California, San Diego [Physics]; University of Chicago [Physics]; University of Cincinnati [Colleges of Applied Science, of Arts & Science, and of Design, Architecture, Art & Planning]; University of Colorado [Optical Sciences & Engineering Program]; University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana [Taft-Laredo Lecture, co-sponsored by Art History; Center for Advanced Study; College of Fine & Applied Arts; Krannert Art Museum; and Physics]; University of Iowa [Distinguished Public Lecture Series]; University of Maryland [Laboratory for Physical Sciences; Physics]; University of Michigan [Penny W. Stamps Distinguished Visitors Lecture, sponsored by the School of Art & Design]; University of Minnesota [Physics; Program in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine]; University of Pittsburg [Center for Philosophy of Science, Physics & Astronomy, and School of Arts & Sciences]; University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates [Architectural Engineering]; University of Southern California [Art History, and Physics]; University of Texas, Dallas [College of Arts and Humanities, and School of Natural Sciences & Mathematics]; Universität Tübingen, Germany [Bodo von Borries Memorial Lecture]; University of Washington [Walker-Ames Lecture; School of Art]; University of Wisconsin [Materials Science], Washington State University [Physics]; Washington University in St. Louis [Sesquicentennial Assembly Series, co-sponsored by School of Art, School of Architecture, School of Engineering & Applied Science, and the Sam Fox Arts Center]; and Wayne State University [Vaden Miles Lecture].

Museums, Libraries, and Cultural Organizations

Chicago Humanities Festival (Chicago); De Young Fine Arts Museum (San Francisco); Denver Museum of Art (Denver); Des Moines Art Center (Des Moines); Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (Bilbao, Spain); Hermitage Museum (St. Petersburg, Russia) International Year of Light Opening Festival (St. Petersburg, Russia); Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York); Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Minneapolis); National Gallery of Art (Washington DC); National Gallery of Australia (Canberra); National Gallery of Ireland (Dublin); New Orleans Museum of Art (New Orleans); North Dakota Museum of Art (Grand Forks); Phoenix Art Museum (Phoenix); Phoenix Central Library (Phoenix); Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (Scottsdale, AZ); Tucson Festival of Books (Tucson); Tucson Museum of Art (Tucson); Uffizi Gallery (Florence Italy); Utah Museum of Fine Arts (Salt Lake City); The Walters Art Museum (Baltimore); World Science Festival (New York).


Advanced Materials Research Institute Technology Symposium (New Orleans); Advances in Scientific Imaging: Molecules, Brain, Universe (University of Pennsylvania); American Association of Physics Teachers Annual Meeting (Seattle); American Chemical Society, 19th Rocky Mountain Regional Meeting (Tucson); American Physical Society March Meeting (Baltimore; New Orleans: Pittsburg; Portland); American Physical Society Four Corners Meeting (Tucson); Arizona Art Education Association Annual Meeting (Prescott); Art and Optics (New York Institute for the Humanities); Association of Medical Illustrators Annual Meeting (Bozeman; MT; Indianapolis), 2nd Biennial Conference on Optics and Light (Storrs, CT); Conference on the Culture and Science of Vision (Worcester, Mass.); Digital Image Computing: Techniques and Applications (Cairns, Australia); European Science Foundation Exploratory Workshop on ‘Optics, Optical Instruments, and Painting: The Hockney-Falco Thesis Revisited’ (Ghent, Belgium); Festkolloquium Güntherodt (Aachen, Germany); Festival della Scienza (Genoa, Italy); First International Conference on the Impact of Islamic Science on Human Civilization (Sharjah, United Arab Emirates); International Conference on Computer Engineering & Systems (Cairo, Egypt); 2nd International Conference on Digital Image Processing (Singapore); 5th International Conference on Digital Image Processing (Beijing); 7th International Conference on Digital Image Processing (Los Angeles); 8th International Conference on Education and Training in Optics and Photonics (Tucson); International Conference of Signal and Image Engineering (London, England); International Conference on Information Science, Signal Processing and Applications (Sharjah, United Arab Emirates); 15th International Display Workshop (Niigata, Japan); 2nd International Optical Society of America Network of Students Conference (Tucson; Ankara, Turkey); International Workshop on Advanced Image Technology (Jakarta, Indonesia); 12th International Workshop on Image Analysis for Multimedia Interactive Services (Delft, The Netherlands); Irish Machine Vision & Image Processing Conference (Belfast, Northern Ireland); IS&T/SPIE Conference on Human Vision and Electronic Imaging (San Jose); 10th Joint Conference on Information Sciences (Salt Lake City); 2nd Biennial Let There Be Light Conference (Storrs, Connecticut); Measuring Art: A Scientific Revolution in Art History (Paris, France); Minnesota Area Association of Physics Teachers (St. Cloud); MML’01 (Aachen, Germany); MML’04 (Boulder); National Art Education Association Annual Meeting (New Orleans; Minneapolis); National Science Teachers Association Annual Meeting (New Orleans); Ocean Optics Conference XIX (Barga, Italy), Optical Society of America Annual Meeting (Orlando); Optical Society of America ‘Symposium on Optics and Renaissance Painting’ (Rochester); Optics and Photonics Winter School and Workshop (Tucson); Painted Optics Symposium (Florence, Italy); Saudi Physical Society Annual Meeting (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia); Society for Information Display, International Symposium (Long Beach, CA); Spins in Solids (Charlottesville, VA), Workshop on Quantum Information Science and Technology (Scottsdale); SPIE Optics + Photonics (San Diego); SPIE Photonics Asia (Beijing, China); Society for Literature and Science (California Institute of Technology); Symposium on ‘Effective Presentation & Interpretation in Museums (Dublin, Ireland); Symposium on Electro-Optics (Tucson); and United Nations International Year of Light (Paris, France).

Ibn al-Haytham and the Science, Religion, Literature, and Art of Europe

In the course of conducting the research described above, we came across the influence of the remarkable optical contributions of the 11thC Islamic scholar Ibn al-Haytham [Latinized as Alhazen or Alhacen] in various unexpected contexts. For example, his work is mentioned in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, in the 13thC French epic poem The Romance of the Rose, and in the writings of the theologian John Wyclif (called “The Morning Star of the Reformation” for his reformist theology that predated Martin Luther by a century), as well as in the Medieval optics texts of Roger Bacon, Erazmus Witelo, and John Peckham. As a result, David Graves (David Hockney’s long time collaborator) and I have been further investigating largely-unexplored aspects of Ibn al-Haytham’s contributions, resulting in us making discoveries that are still ongoing. Even though our work continues, already we have assembled more than enough material for lectures on this fascinating, and extremely important, scholar.

As a result of these efforts, in 2015 the Steering Committee of the UN International Year of Light appointed me to the International Working Group ‘Ibn al Haytham’.  Also in 2015 I was elected Vice-President of the Ibn al Haytham Light, History, Science and Applications International Society, incorporated in France under the auspices of UNESCO.  In 2016 I was appointed to the Board of Trustees of the Sharjah International Foundation for the History of Arab & Muslim Sciences, Chaired by the Ruler of Sharjah, UAE.

FalcoPlenaryUAE.pdf Abstract of a Plenary Lecture given during the opening ceremonies of a 2007 conference in the U.A.E., attended by the Ruler of the Emirate of Sharjah.

6½-min. clip about Ibn al-Haytham, extracted from an hour-long lecture that was part of a hands-on optics workshop. Although greatly abbreviated, this clip gives an idea of the types of material on this important scholar that we have assembled.

Colloquia and Invited Conference Talks

Invited talks at the following conferences and institutions contained significant content about Ibn al-Haytham:

American Physical Society (New Orleans); Ibn al-Haytam Millennial Anniversary Symposium (Kuantan, Malaysia); International Conference on Arabs’ and Muslims’ History of Sciences (Sharjah, United Arab Emirates); International Conference on Computer Engineering & Systems (Cairo, Egypt); International Conference on Information Science, Signal Processing and Applications (Sharjah, United Arab Emirates); International Conference on The Islamic World and the West: Re-Building Bridges Through Science and Technology (Doha, Qatar); UNESCO International Conference on Ibn al Haytham (Paris); United Nations International Year of Light Opening Ceremonies (Paris, France); Annual Meeting of the Saudi Physics Society (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia); International Conference on Science and Technology for Sustainable Development in the Islamic World (Kazan, Tatarstan/Russia); International Optics Network of Students (Ankara, Turkey); International Workshop on Advanced Image Technology (Jakarta, Indonesia); King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (Dhahran, Saudi Arabia); Minnesota State University (Honors Program); Science and Engineering in the Islamic Heritage (Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, Centre for the Study of Islamic Manuscripts, and the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation, London); Scientific Forum of the Sharjah International Foundation for the History of Arab & Muslim Sciences (Sharjah, United Arab Emirates); University of Texas, Dallas (Asia Center, School of Arts and Humanities, Crescent Foundation, Institute of Medieval and Post-Medieval Studies); Workshop on Shedding Light on the Contributions of Muslim Scholars to Science and Technology (Tunis, Tunisia); University of Arizona (Center for Middle Eastern Studies); University of Washington (Honors Program).

Workshops on Optics and Art

Because our discoveries about the use of projected images by Renaissance artists, in which those artists made use of optical and imaging principles developed by the 11thC scholar Ibn al-Haytham, are so visually compelling, this subject matter is very useful for teaching aspects of art and image analysis to scientists, and science to artists. The following 80-second clip is from a two-hour workshop I gave to high school students as an annual outreach activity of the College of Optical Sciences. We also have developed two and three-hour variations of the workshop content, along with a variety of handouts, that are appropriate for high school and college-level science instructors, and additional content variations specifically for art teachers. Work planned for the future would significantly expand the content to make it suitable for a semester-long college class, as well as create “modules” for use in primary and secondary schools.  I am grateful to Aimee Weintz Allen (M.A. in Art Education) for her valuable contributions to this.

80-sec. clip from a hands-on workshop on optics~art.

For more information about using these discoveries for teaching science and art, click here.


Annual Meeting of the Association of Medical Illustrators (Indianapolis); Annual Meeting of the Saudi Physical Society (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia); Tucson Museum of Art (Tucson); University of Sharjah (College of Arts & Sciences; Sharjah, U.A.E); University of Arizona (College of Optical Sciences).

Next: Acknowledgements and Contact Information >>