Sitting between biology and physics, the field of chemistry is sometimes called the central science. This branch of science deals not with the most basic elements of reality, such as fundamental particles, or the complex world of living organisms, but the in-between world of atoms, molecules and chemical processes.
Chemistry is the study of matter, analysing its structure, properties and behaviour to see what happens when they change in chemical reactions. As such, it can be considered a branch of physical science, alongside astronomy, physics and earth sciences including geology.
An important area of chemistry is the understanding of atoms and what determines how they react. It turns out reactivity is often largely mediated by the electrons that orbit atoms and the way these are exchanged and shared to create chemical bonds.
Chemistry has now split into many branches. For instance, analytical chemists might measure the traces of compounds in ancient pottery to discern what people were eating thousands of years ago.
Biochemistry is the study of the chemical processes that take place in living organisms, for instance in farming, and on the effect the resulting produce will have on our body’s metabolism.
Organic chemistry, the study of compounds which contain carbon, connects up molecules in new ways to build and analyse an array of materials, from drugs to plastics to flexible electronics. Inorganic chemistry is the study of materials based primarily on elements other than carbon. Inorganic compounds can be pigments, fertilisers, catalysts and more.
Physical chemistry involves looking at chemistry through the lens of physics to study changes in pressure, temperatures and rates of conversion, for example, as substances react.
Chemists help us understand the nature and properties of the world around us and the history of chemistry is replete with discoveries that have furthered this. Antoine Lavoisier paved the way for modern chemistry. He helped give the field structure by developing an ordered language and symbolism. And his understanding of the constituent parts of air, as well as the process of combustion, disproved centuries of incorrect thinking. But there is perhaps no more important chemist than Dmitri Mendeleev, the Russian who in 1869 wrote down the symbols for all the known chemical elements, arranging them according to their atomic weight. He had created the periodic table, making it possible to predict how any given element would react with another, the compounds it would form and what kind of physical properties it would have.
Chemists have subsequently given us treatments for cancer, advanced our understanding of radioactive elements and developed mobile X rays for use in field hospitals – and that’s just Marie Curie. Rosalind Franklin helped us understand that DNA was structured as a double helix, paving the way for the modern revolution in genetic science.
More recently, advances in chemistry and biology have contributed to the development of vaccines to the coronavirus, using our knowledge of DNA and RNA to create the first approved messenger RNA vaccines (mRNA). From the development of plastics, and with it nylon, waterproof clothing and even bulletproof vests, to the liquid crystal display you are most likely reading this information on, right through to the complete synthesis of medicines, chemistry’s contributions to modern life are myriad.
newscientist.com, 2 March 2021