What is Chemistry?
Reference books often define Chemistry as the study of matter, which it is, but this only leads to the next question, "what is matter?".
So, while this definition is accurate, it isn't really very helpful unless you have a good understanding of what "matter" is, and if you did then you wouldn't need to study Chemistry would you?
At AUS-e-TUTE, we think of Chemistry as the study of life, the universe and everything (with apologies to Douglas Adams and the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy).
Undertaking a Chemistry course is one of the most fascinating and exciting things you can do, not just because everything you are, everything you do, and everything around you relies on chemistry, but because chemistry is the only science that truly endeavours to go out and make entirely new things.
Think about that.
Biologists study living things but, while they can make changes to living things they can't make an entirely new living thing (and even making changes to living things requires chemistry!).
Geologists (or Earth Scientists) study the non-living parts of planets such as minerals and rocks, but they don't make new planets made of new minerals and rocks (and if they did, they'd also be relying on chemistry).
Physics studies forces and energy, but while Physicists can make changes to these they don't make entirely new forces and energies.(1)
So Chemistry is really quite unique among the Sciences. Chemists don't just study what already exists in order to understand it, they actively take what they have learnt and apply it to make entirely new bits of matter, bits of matter that may not even exist in the natural world.(2) And that is what makes chemistry so interesting, so fascinating, and, so exciting.
The study of Chemistry is an adventure!
Let's be a bit more specific.
Living things need gases which they get from the air. Chemists study not just the matter making up the gases in the air, they also study the chemical reactions involving those gases. But have they ever made new gases that don't occur naturally on Earth? You bet they have! The gases chugging around your fridge or air-conditioner, for example, have been made specifically to keep things cool.
You eat in order to get the nutrients your body needs for growth, repair and maintenance. Chemists are interested not just in the bits of matter you consume, but also in the chemical reactions involved in breaking that matter up during digestion, and, in how the body uses and eliminates bits of matter. But have chemists ever made new bits of edible matter? All the time! The chemistry of edible flavours and colours, for example, is hugely important.
When you get sick, you probably take some form of medication. Guess what? Drugs are just bits of matter that Chemists have made!
What about the materials your clothes are made of? Chemists have made entirely new bits of matter, synthetic polymers like polyesters and polyamides, that you are probably wearing in some form right now.
What about your plastic packaging, cards, containers, etc, etc? All the work of Chemists making new bits of matter.
The metals used to make cars, coins, cutlery, etc, etc? Once again, all rely on an understanding of the chemistry of metals, and, how to alloy metals to make new bits of matter.
Chemists have even had a hand in making new minerals, just go to a jeweller's shop and look at the synthetic gemstones, turquoise, and even opals.
And on a more morbid note, even after you, or any other living thing dies, chemistry continues, breaking up the dead thing into smaller bits of matter that can be used again. Chemistry even works on non-living things, breaking them apart and making new things. You might want to think about that too... every breath you take, every morsel of food, every sip of drink, contains matter that has been chemically treated and recycled.(3)
"Chemistry" is not just extremely important to you in your everyday life, it also encompasses a huge area of scientific interest. For this reason the study of Chemistry is usually broken down into several smaller chunks or areas which are referred to as disciplines.
The Chemistry disciplines you are likely to meet at school are:
- Organic Chemistry - the study of carbon based compounds
This includes the study of IUPAC nomenclature, functional groups, and the reactions of carbon based molecules.
- Biochemistry - the study of chemicals and chemical reactions in living things
This includes the study of organic molecules like amino acids, proteins, enzymes, carbohydrates, fats and oils, DNA, chemical reactions during breathing and digestion, etc.
- Inorganic Chemistry - the study of non-carbon elements, compounds and reactions
This includes the study of the elements of the Periodic Table and their chemical reactions, including the transition metals, their compounds and reactions.
- Physical Chemistry - the study of the physical basis of chemical systems
This includes the study of chemical equilibrium, thermochemistry, thermodynamics, chemical kinetics, electrochemistry and spectroscopy, etc.
- Nuclear Chemistry - the study of sub-atomic particles and nuclei formation.
This includes the study of isotopes, radioactivity, nuclear decay, fission and fusion, etc.
- Analytical Chemistry - the analysis of materials in regards to composition and structure
This includes the areas of gravimetric analysis, volumetric analysis (titrations), chromatography, spectroscopy, electrophoresis etc.
But since even these disciplines each cover a huge area, they are further subdivided into smaller disciplines!
Some of these other disciplines are listed alphabetically below:
- Astrochemistry - study of elements, compounds and chemical reactions in space
- Atmospheric Chemistry - study of planetary atmosphere
- Chemical Biology - application of chemical techniques to the manipulation of biological systems
- Chemical Engineering - study of the conversion of raw materials into more useful forms
- Chemo-informatics - application of information techniques to chemical problems
- Crystallography - the study of the arrangement of atoms in solids
- Environmental Chemistry - the study of chemistry occurrring in natural places
- Flavour Chemistry - the study of the chemicals and systems involved in flavour
- Geochemistry - study of the chemical composition of the Earth and other planets
- Green Chemistry - study of elimination or reduction in the use and generation of hazardous substances
- Immunohistochemistry - study of the localization of proteins in tissue cells
- Immunochemistry - study of the chemicals and reactions of the immune system
- Industrial Chemistry - study of the optimization of chemical processes
- Materials Science - study of the relationship between molecular structure and macroscopic properties
- Mathematical Chemistry - applications of mathematics to chemistry problems
- Medicinal Chemistry - study of the design, synthesis and development of pharmaceutical drugs
- Molecular Biology - study of chemical interactions within a cell
- Nanotechnology - study of the control of matter at the atomic and molecular scale
- Natural Product Chemistry - the study of natural products found in nature
- Neurochemistry - the study of neurochemicals
- Oenology - the study of the chemistry of wine and winemaking
- Organometallic Chemistry - study of chemical compounds containing bonds between carbon and metal atoms
- Petrochemistry - study of the transformation of crude oil and natural gas into useful products
- Pharmacology - study of drug action
- Photochemistry - study of the interactions between atoms, molecules and electromagnetic radiation
- Physical Organic Chemistry - study of interrelationships between structure and reactivity in organic molecules
- Phytochemistry - study of chemicals derived from plants
- Polymer (Macromolecular) Chemistry - study of the synthesis and properties of polymers (macromolecules)
- Quantum Chemistry - application of quantum mechanics to chemistry
- Solid-State Chemistry - study of synthesis,structure and physical properties of solids
- Sonochemistry - study of the effect of sonic waves and wave properties on chemical systems
- Supramolecular Chemistry - study of the weaker, non-covalent interactions between molecules
- Surface Chemistry - study of the interactions occurring at the interface of two phases
- Theoretical Chemistry - study of chemistry from fundamental theoretical reasoning
While this list may seem pretty all-inclusive, it is by no means a complete list of ALL the disciplines in chemistry.
You see, chemistry is continually evolving, branching out into new areas, so the list of chemistry disciplines is also increasing with time.
So, what is chemistry?
Yes, chemistry is the study of matter and its interactions, but because "Chemistry" covers such a huge area of scientific interest perhaps the best definition is that Chemistry is the study of the things that interest a Chemist.