Born in Tus, Persia, Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan is one of the fathers of modern chemistry.
Early life and alchemy
Abu Mūsā Jābir ibn Hayyān is thought to have been born in Tus, Persia (modern day Iran). Jābir – whose name is commonly latinised to Geber in the west – was a polymath: a chemist and alchemist, astronomer and astrologer, engineer, geographer, philosopher, physicist, pharmacist and physician.
Jābir’s teacher, Ja’far as-Sadiq, inspired his interest in alchemy. Jābir wrote “my master Ja'far as-Sadiq taught me about calcium, evaporation, distillation and crystallisation and everything I learned in alchemy was from my master”. Jābir drew inspiration from a range of people, including Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras and Socrates, as well as Egyptian and Greek alchemists.
Aristotle had previously theorised that each of the four basic elements – fire, air, water and earth – had different qualities: fire was hot and dry, air hot and moist, water cold and moist, and earth cold and dry. In metals it was believed two of these qualities were interior, and two exterior; for example, lead was cold and dry, whereas gold was hot and moist. Jābir theorised that by rearranging the qualities of a metal, a different metal could be produced.
Following this, Jābir proposed the mercury-sulfur theory, whereby metals differ from one another due to their varying proportions of sulfur and mercury. Unlike the elements we think of today, these names referred to certain principles, for which the element was the closest approximation in nature; sulfur characterised combustibility, and mercury metallic properties. Jābir wrote “the metals are all, in essence, composed of mercury combined and coagulated with sulphur… they differ from one another only because of the difference of their accidental qualities”.
Jābir’s classification of elements into three categories can be viewed as the beginnings of the modern grouping of elements into metals and non-metals. Spirits vaporised on heating, and included arsenic, mercury, and ammonium chloride; metals included gold, silver and copper; and the third category encompassed non-malleable substances, such as stones, which could be converted into powders.
The father of modern chemistry
The use of experimentation in chemistry was Jābir’s greatest legacy. He is credited with using over twenty types of now basic chemical laboratory equipment, including the alembic and retort, and also describing many chemical processes, including crystallisation and distillation. He is believed to have discovered aqua regia, a mix of hydrochloric acid and nitric acid, which has the ability to dissolve gold, in the process of helping to justify alchemists’s search for the philosopher’s stone. Jābir also introduced several technical Arabic terms, such as alkali, into the scientific vocabulary.
It was Jābir’s recognition that experiments are vital to science that transformed the mystical practice of alchemy into what would become modern chemistry.
“The first essential in chemistry is that thou shouldest perform practical work and conduct experiments, for he who performs not practical work nor makes experiments will never attain to the least degree of mastery.”
Words by Vicki Marshall
Published June 2014