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Acetic acid.

Once the Arabs had conquered the territories of the old Greek Hellenistic kingdoms, they were exposed to the old Greek books on science, and they loved them. Whereas Greek learning had been almost forgotten in western Europe, the Arabs preserved it and translated the great books of Euclid, Aristotle, Ptolemy, and others into Arabic. For several centuries the Arabs were the leading scientists of the Western world, excelling in astronomy, medicine, and alchemy.

The greatest of the Arabian alchemists was Jabir ibn Hayyan (ca. 721-ca. 815), known to Europeans later as Geber. He sought for methods of forming gold, and also for some mysterious dry powder (elixir, from Arabic words meaning "the dry one") that would do the job. It was thought that such a magical substance could also cure all disease, and it was known as the elixir of life or the panacea (from Greek words meaning "all-healing"). Centuries of effort went into a useless search for this substance.

Geber, however, in his researches, also managed to make important discoveries.

Up to his time, the strongest acid known was vinegar, a dilute solution of acetic acid. By distilling vinegar, Geber obtained purer samples of acetic acid, which were, naturally, stronger than vinegar. This was important, for until then the one agent known to induce chemical change was heat. Acids, if strong enough, are another important agent for change, and they bring about changes other than those brought about by heat.

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Author:Asimov, Isaac
Publication:Asimov's Chronology of Science & Discovery, Updated ed.
Article Type:Reference Source
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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