Science in a Golden Age – Chemistry: The Search for the Philosopher’s Stone

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Chemical industry has improved the modern world by providing us additional fuels, medicines and drugs, and other materials. However, the basic principles and methods of chemistry go back more than a thousand years.

There was a golden age of science between the 9th and 12th centuries, when Jabir Ibn Hayyan and Al-Razi like intellectuals from the Islamic world pioneered a meticulous experimental approach that put the basis for the modern scientific techniques. In the following episode of Science in a Golden Age, theoretical physicist Jim al-Kahlili explores that how these scientists started the process of transfiguring the fallacy of alchemy into the science of chemistry.

Al-Khalili starts from the medieval mania with alchemy – the attempt to convert less precious and common metals into gold. He looks into the work of Jabir Ibn Hayyan, a polymath accredited for applying an experimental-based approach to early chemistry, who learnt much about acids during his resolute attempts to melt and transform metals. Jim explores the reaction of gold and aqua regia, a potent mixture of acids discovered by Ibn Hayyan, together with Professor Hal Sosabowski from the University of Brighton.

Chemists like Al-Kindi and Al-Razi followed the work of Ibn Hayyan, and by establishing their work on cautious experiments and observations, they promoted the development of scientific methods. Jim reveals that how the development of chemical methods was motivated by the numerous factors of Islam. For example to fulfill the requirement of cleanliness, one of the essential factors of Islam, they produced the first solid bars of soaps. They utilized alkalis in soaps and led the development of the whole soap industry.

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