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13.8.10

The legend has it that in a bid to win a bet, Cleopatra quaffed a vinegar martini made with a dissolved pearl, supposed to be the largest in the whole of history. And now, a researcher has claimed that the Egyptian queen's canny chemistry trick — doubted by scholars, might actually have happened.

Classicist Prudence Jones of Montclair (New Jersey) State University has detailed the history of the story — Cleopatra won a wager with her befuddled Roman consort, Marc Antony, by consuming her pearl cocktail to create the costliest catering bill ever. She racked up a banquet bill of 10 million sesterces (sesterces were the nickels of the ancient world), thanks to the destruction of the pearl.

"There's usually a kernel of truth in these stories. I always prefer to give ancient sources the benefit of the doubt and not assume that something that sounds far-fetched is just fiction," USA Today quoted Jones as saying. "I think there was a fairly good understanding of practical chemistry in the ancient world," Jones said by email.
BL Ullman of the University of North Carolina noted in 1957 that some experiments suggested that vinegar could indeed dissolve pearls, made of acid-unfriendly calcium carbonate by oysters. "I began to wonder if there was any truth behind it and started trying some experiments, at first with calcium supplement tablets and pieces of oyster shell and then with pearls," she said.

"Experiments reveal that a reaction between pearls and vinegar is quite possible," she said. Calcium carbonate plus the vinegar's acetic acid in water produces calcium acetate water and carbon dioxide. Jones found a 5% solution of acetic acid, sold in supermarkets today and well within concentrations produced naturally by fermentation, takes 24 to 36 hours to dissolve a 5-carat pearl.

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