What Is Chemistry?

A workshop held at the Variety in Chemistry Education conference at Keele, UK, 2005 discussed the question: "What is chemistry?"

The workshop discussions proved to be really quite enlightening: the trick was to get the participants to write their ideas down on Post-It notes. This page gives an edited version of the discussion.

Different groups require different explanations as to what chemistry is:

  • 11-14 year old school students
  • 17 year old college & university candidates
  • The taxi driver
  • Scientifically literate lay person
  • Professional engineers & scientists
  • The press
  • Politicians

Some different statements about chemistry:

Chemistry is:

  • The study of matter and its changes
  • Chemical principles
  • Chemical science
  • Knowledge of structure and properties of matter at the molecular level
  • Chemists make and analyse chemicals
  • Synthesis: chemists synthesise – make – new types of chemical
  • Creating molecules
  • Experimentation
  • Structure: scale range from atomic to nano
  • Experiential: scale range from atomic to nano to bulk
  • Quantitative science
  • Chemists cure cancer
  • Doctors don't cure ill people, chemists do
  • What chemists want students to study
  • What chemists do or want to do
  • What chemists are taught
  • The way chemists think
  • The coverage of chemical abstracts
  • Google search

Heartland chemistry topics include:

  • Periodic table
  • The mole concept
  • Change
  • Chemical thermodynamics
  • Rates and mechanisms of reactions
  • Organic chemistry
  • Inorganic chemistry
  • Main group chemistry

Boundary areas, including: 'stolen from chemistry' and 'smuggled into chemistry':
  • Food science (stolen from chem)
  • Thermodynamics (smuggled into chem)
  • Engineering: corrosion, materials, etc. (smuggled into chem)
  • Atomic structure (physics, smuggled into chem)
  • Medicinal chemistry
  • Nanotechnology
  • Chemical information (data)
  • Physical chemistry vs. chemical physics
  • Materials and materials science
  • Systematic nomenclature (heartland chemistry)
  • Acronyms: DNA, asp, HASP, etc.: biochemistry
  • Chemists average out and ignore structural defects
  • Defects are crucial to physicists and material scientists
  • Phase space complexity: chemists – and physicists – want to fully understand a material's structure [phase], whereas biologists, geologists and materials scientists are [only] concerned with a material's function, even when the phase may be too inherently complex to fully understand.

A subtle one this:

  • Chirality: R/S (heartland chemistry)
  • Optical activity: D/L = biochemistry

Some areas where chemistry is important:

  • Spectroscopic analysis
  • Fuel cells
  • Solar cells
  • Chemical lasers
  • CDs/DVDs
  • Alternative fuels
  • Novel batteries
  • Dyes
  • Computer displays
  • Nanotechnology
  • Molecular aspects of taste and smell
  • Biosensors
  • Drug design
  • Photochromic materials
  • Corrosion
  • Chromatography
  • Enzymes
  • Semiconductors
  • Group theory
  • Catalysis
  • Metals & alloys

Some positive images of chemistry (because we sure don't need any more negative ones):

  • Chemistry is Life
  • Chemistry is Exciting
  • Chemistry is Rewarding
  • Chemistry is Essential
  • Chemistry is Useful
  • Chemistry is Molecular
  • Chemistry is Practical
  • Chemistry is Beautiful
  • Chemistry is Wondrous
  • Chemistry is Tangible
  • Chemistry is Creative
  • Chemistry is Challenging
  • Chemistry is Energetic
  • Chemistry is Elemental
  • Chemistry is Stimulating
  • Chemistry is Everywhere
  • Chemistry is Versatile
  • Chemistry is Art
  • Chemistry is Left-brained
  • Chemistry is Positive
  • Chemistry is Valuable
  • Chemistry is Lucrative
  • Chemistry is Organic
  • Chemistry is Wicked
  • Chemistry is Colourful
  • Chemistry is Fascinating
  • Chemistry is Amazing
  • Chemistry is Lifesaving
  • Chemistry is Life enhancing
  • Chemistry is Comfortable
  • Chemistry is Cuddly
  • Chemistry is Life changing
  • Chemistry is Construction (industry)
  • Chemistry is Communication (the kit)
  • Chemistry is Horny
  • Chemistry is Colourful
  • Chemistry is Fun
  • Chemistry is Green
  • Chemistry is Cool
  • Chemistry is Hot
  • Chemistry is Fab
  • Chemistry is Spectacular
  • Chemistry is Awesome

An interesting contribution from Prof. Jacob Zabicky to the Philosophy of chemistry Internet discussion list discussing how "fizzy" any definition of chemistry can be:

Question the following fields:

Understanding the embrittlement of steel by hydrogen inclusions. I haven't heard of many chemists taking up this challenge.

In Nature of the Chemical Bond Linus Pauling complained that chemists take little interest in intermetallic compounds, while physicists, materials scientists and engineers deal with them at all levels. Do the intermetallics belong within chemistry?

Official regulations, for example: Sox and Nox emissions by power plants, transportation of peroxides and use of azo dyes in consumer products. The substances are well defined chemicals, the forensic methods are known, as are the chemical reactions. But the target communities, both on the engineers and consumers know little about the chemistry.

Any comments, or if you would like to add some text to this page, or links from this page, please feel free to contact:

Dr Mark R Leach via mark@meta-synthesis.com


The Higher Education Academy, Physical Sciences Centre

Meta-Synthesis home page

The Chemogenesis web book

© Mark R. Leach 1999-