Known as the central science, chemistry is integral to our understanding of the natural world around us. In this lesson, you’ll be introduced to the field of chemistry, learning about its history and its modern applications.

(Video available on March 2016)

Lesson Transcript

What Is Chemistry?

When you hear the word ‘chemistry,’ there are likely certain images that come to mind – molecules, test tubes, the periodic table, maybe even some cool explosions in a movie.

But chemistry is so much more than these things! In fact, chemistry is known as the central science because it touches all other natural sciences, like biology, physics, geology, and more.

Chemistry is a physical science, and it is the study of the properties of and interactions between matter and energy. In other words, chemistry is a way to study the properties, characteristics, and physical and chemical changes of matter.

Matter is pretty important because it’s anything that has mass and takes up space – basically, all of the ‘stuff’ that makes up our world! Chemists study atoms, which are the basic building blocks of matter, as well interactions between atoms.

They also study subatomic particles, which are smaller than atoms, and these include things like protons, neutrons, and electrons. Since everything on Earth is made of matter, and matter is made of atoms, you can see how this creates the overlap between chemistry and other sciences. You can’t have ‘stuff’ to study if you don’t have ‘stuff’ in the first place. In other words, matter really matters!

Chemistry Has a Rich History

Your understanding of chemistry may be shiny and new, but chemistry itself has been around for a very long time. Basic chemistry dates back to ancient times and is described as originating from alchemists who were very thorough scientists. They ran experiments and recorded their results, which is a key component of good science.

Modern chemistry dates back to the 17th century, and credited as one of the founders of this scientific field is Robert Boyle. Boyle is one of the developers of the scientific method, which is an organized set of steps to gain knowledge and answer questions. Boyle believed in rigorous, tested experimentation and was a strong advocate of proving scientific theories before calling them ‘truths.’

Though not always considered a formal science, chemistry has been performed throughout human history. People have been fermenting food and drink for centuries. Extracting metal from ores is another form of ‘natural’ chemistry, as is making glass, soap, and extracting plant components for medicinal purposes. Archaeologists find pottery at their dig sites, and both the pots and the glazes used to protect them come from knowledge of chemistry as well.

Branches of Chemistry

As you can see, chemistry exists whether we define it or not. And because an understanding of chemistry is so vital in so many other scientific fields, there are several different branches of chemistry that exist. In fact, chemistry is often studied so that scientists can better understand their own field.

An exhaustive list of the different branches of chemistry would be, well, exhausting to go through. We only have so much time in this lesson, so let’s focus on some of the major ones to give you an idea of how chemistry plays a role as a natural science.

Analytical chemistry is a field that is just what it sounds like: the analysis of matter. Analytical chemists try to gain information and knowledge about the properties, composition, and structure of different materials and substances in order to better understand them.

Applied chemistry is a neat field because it is the application of chemistry for practical purposes. You know all those different shampoos at the store? Some are for colored hair, some for dry/damaged hair, and others are for thin hair. Applied chemistry is specifically used to solve problems – in this case, chemistry is used to have different effects on different hair types.

Biochemistry sounds a lot like biology and chemistry, and this is because it is chemistry as applied to living organisms and their processes. Metabolism, medicine, cellular biology, genetics, nutrition, and even exercise sciences are all types of biochemistry because they deal with the interactions of chemical-biological functions and structures.

Environmental chemistry is a fast-growing field, because this is the study of chemicals in the air, soil, and water. Environmental chemistry examines chemical reactions and their effects on our environment by understanding how the chemicals got there, how they’re transported, and what happens to them once they’re there.

Even though chemistry is already a physical science, a specific branch of chemistry exists called physical chemistry. This branch applies physics to chemistry, which includes a whole host of its own branches. Things like quantum mechanics, nuclear chemistry, thermodynamics, and kinetics are all types of physical chemistry.

As mentioned, this list is just a small smattering of the different fields of chemistry, but we simply can’t list them all here. But I bet that any scientific field you can think of probably has at least one chemistry field associated with it – chemistry really is central to it all.

Lesson Summary

Known as the central science, chemistry is the study of the properties of and interactions between matter and energy. Matter is stuff, and atoms are what make up that stuff. So you could say that chemists study all the stuff on Earth as well as what that stuff itself is made of!

Modern scientific chemistry dates back to the 17th century, but basic applications of chemistry go back much farther. This is easy to see when you think of how intertwined chemistry is with everything else and how many different branches of chemistry exist. Biology, physics, and even astronomy all have chemistry roots, and this is exactly why learning chemistry helps so many non-chemists be better scientists in their own field.