Chemistry is the scientific discipline involved with elements and compounds composed of atoms, molecules and ions: their composition, structure, properties, behavior and the changes they undergo during a reaction with other substances.

In the scope of its subject, chemistry occupies an intermediate position between physics and biology. It is sometimes called the central science because it provides a foundation for understanding both basic and applied scientific disciplines at a fundamental level. For example, chemistry explains aspects of plant chemistry (botany), the formation of igneous rocks (geology), how atmospheric ozone is formed and how environmental pollutants are degraded (ecology), the properties of the soil on the moon (cosmochemistry), how medications work (pharmacology), and how to collect DNA evidence at a crime scene (forensics).

Chemistry basics

The reason why chemistry touches everything we do is because almost everything in existence can be broken down into chemical building blocks.

The main building blocks in chemistry are chemical elements, which are substances made of a single atom. Each chemical is unique, composed of a set number of protons, neutrons and electrons, and is identified by a name and a chemical symbol, such as “C” for carbon. The elements that scientists have discovered so far are listed in the periodic table of elements, and include both elements that are found in nature like carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, as well as those that are manmade, like Lawrencium.

The five main branches of chemistry

Analytical chemistry involves the analysis of chemicals, and includes qualitative methods like looking at color changes, as well as quantitative methods like examining the exact wavelength(s) of light that a chemical absorbed to result in that color change. 

Inorganic chemistryModern chemistry, which dates more or less from the acceptance of the law of conservation of mass in the late 18th century, focused initially on those substances that were not associated with living organisms. Study of such substances, which normally have little or no carbon, constitutes the discipline of inorganic chemistry.

Biochemistry, as mentioned above, uses chemistry techniques to understand how biological systems work at a chemical level. Thanks to biochemistry, researchers have been able to map out the human genome, understand what different proteins do in the body and develop cures for many diseases.

Organic chemistry Organic compounds are based on the chemistry of carbon. Carbon is unique in the variety and extent of structures that can result from the three-dimensional connections of its atoms. The process of photosynthesis converts carbon dioxide and water to oxygen and compounds known as carbohydrates.

Physical chemistry uses concepts from physics to understand how chemistry works. For example, figuring out how atoms move and interact with each other, or why some liquids, including water, turn into vapor at high temperatures. Physical chemists try to understand these phenomena at a very small scale — on the level of atoms and molecules — to derive conclusions about how chemical reactions work and what gives specific materials their own unique properties


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