Chemistry: The Search for the Philosopher’s Stone


3 Nov 2015

History of Science, Chemistry

Jim al-Khalili

This episode focuses on ideas that have generally been attributed to Jābir ibn Ḥayyān (flourished circa 721-ca. 815 CE), an early scholar whose work demonstrates clear use of experimental methods.  The focus on methods helps to clarify the differences between alchemy and chemistry, although it is pointed out that even Isaac Newton was involved in alchemy.

Jim al-Khalili examines this in the context of Doha’s oil revenue, one form of the chemical industry.  Al-Khalili discusses the process and implements of distillation, a major concept across this episode.

Al-Khalili spends time with a glass-blower in Doha’s bazaar, making an alembic on the spot.  With a showman’s flair, he and a chemistry student create some chemical reactions.  He also follows Jābir ibn Ḥayyān’s studies of the reactivity of metals with water and acids.

Al-Khalili is joined by Dr. Peter Starr, a historian of science of this period, in Istanbul, and Prof. Hal Sosabowski of the University of Brighton (UK).

This is the fifth episode of Science in A Golden Age, a six-part series first broadcast in 2015.  It was created by al-Jazeera network and the Glasshead production company.  Each episode focuses on topics that have both historical and contemporary components.  Some of the contemporary segments were filmed in Doha, Qatar, home for the al-Jazeera network.


Islam:  The material on Islam is within the bounds of what Muslims have historically understood as acceptable.

Science:  The science presented is consistent with a consensus of contemporary scientists.

History:  The history presented is consistent with a consensus of contemporary historians.

About Jim al-Khalili

Born September 20, 1962 in Baghdad, Iraq, Jim Al Khalili is a renowned theoretical physicist, writer, lecturer, and broadcaster. Growing up with a devout Christian mother and a slightly agnostic Muslim father, Al-Khalili now describes himself as a “cuddly atheist.” He immigrated to the United Kingdom in 1979, and completed both a bachelors of science and a Ph.D. in nuclear reaction theory at the University of Surrey. Khalili remained at the University of Surrey, and as of 2015 is still a professor of physics there. In addition, he holds a chair in Public Engagement in Science Department.

Khalili conducts research into quantum physics and quantum biology, but is most well known for his accessibly written, popular science books and his regular appearances as a TV presenter for science documentaries. Khalili is also a radio broadcaster for BBC4, presenting ‘The Life Scientific’ weekly. His list of accomplishments and awards are long, though most notably he was the youngest person to ever receive the Royal Society’s Michael Faraday prize for science communication in 2008 and also received the Institute of Physics Kelvin Medal in 2011. Khalili also became President of the British Humanist Association in 2013.

As of 2015, Khalili operates an active Twitter page and a personal website. In addition, he periodically writes for The Guardian newspaper; however, his most recent post there was in December 2014. Khalili’s personal website is host to his blog and a collection of his various science communication efforts.

Selected Bibliography:

Al-Khalili, Jim. Jim Al-Khalili’s Website. N.p., n.d. Accessed 1 June 2015.

Al-Khalili, Jim. Twitter. Twitter, n.d.

“Jim Al-Khalili.” Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2012. Biography in Context. Accessed 1 June 2015.

Peck, Tom. “Jim Al-Khalili: ‘I’m a Cuddly Atheist. I Don’t Need to Tell My Mum Her Faith Is Stupid’” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 23 Dec. 2012. Accessed 1 June 2015.

President of the British Humanist Association.” British Humanist Association. British Humanist Association, n.d. Accessed 1 June 2015.

Professor Jim Al-Khalili OBE.” Professor Jim Al-Khalili OBE. The Royal Society, n.d. Accessed 1 June 2015.