Chemistry: A Volatile History - Discovering the Elements

When the ancient Greeks inquired into the building blocks of the universe, they posited the existence of four fundamental elements out of which everything else is composed: earth, fire, air and water (and in some cases, ether). Crude as this taxonomy was, it became so influential that it went virtually unquestioned for two millennia. In the first episode of this fascinating documentary series, Professor Jim Al-Khalili tells the story of the human quest to understand the basic constituents of the universe, how the elements were discovered, and how the modern science of chemistry was born from mystical foundations in alchemy.

In fact, it would be an alchemist, Phillipus Theophrastus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim (what a mouthful!), better known as Paracelsus, who would first challenge the ancient Greek wisdom when he proposed the existence of three spiritual substances: mercury, sulfur and sat. Less than two centuries later, while trying to isolate the philosopher's stone, that long sought-after legendary substance capable of turning base metals into gold, the German alchemist Hennig Brand would unwittingly become the first person in history to isolate an element in its pure form... and I bet you'll never guess where he found it :)

Once this spark was kindled, it would not be long until more and more elements were discovered and the revolutionary science of chemistry was established by luminaries such as Antoine Lavoisier, Joseph Priestley, Robert Boyle and Humphry Davy, but there was one more major and subtle theoretical hurdle that had to be overcome first: the ever-elusive phlogiston... which managed to elude everyone mainly because it turned out not to exist :)


Check out Joseph Priestley's contribution to the discovery of oxygen, Lavoisier's contribution to Einstein's e=mc2, or his contribution to the understanding of cold.
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