What is Chemistry? (History and Branches)

by Dave

In this article, I take the reader on a brief journey to discover how chemistry came about. I also look at the modern versions of chemistry with its many branches. Towards the end, I discuss current trends in chemistry. So, let’s find out how chemistry can change your life.

Chemistry involves the study of matter, and its properties. The field studies why and how substances separate or combine to form many other substances. Another area of interest is how these substances interact and react with energy. Curious about what is chemistry and the history of the subject? We’re going to overview the popular branches for you, as well as the history of the field! First, we’ll take a look at the history of chemistry. We’ll walk through the very early days of alchemy into the 18th century. Next, we’ll explore modern advancements beginning in the 20th century. Finally, we’ll break down the popular branches of chemistry. First, let’s take a crash course in the subject and go over a brief.

Crash Course – A Brief Intro

Every substance, whether artificially produced or naturally occurring, consists of one or multiple of the 100-odd species of atoms. which are known as elements. While these atoms, in turn, are often made up of more elementary particles, they’re the fundamental building blocks of most chemical substances. This is why there isn’t any quantity of mercury, oxygen, or gold, for instance, smaller compared to an atom of that specific substance.

Understanding basic chemistry principles and concepts is vital for almost every profession. This is because chemistry is an integral part of everything in our lives.

One of the main challenges in chemistry is the development of a simple and coherent explanation of the complicated behavior of materials. Materials include what gives them their specific properties, why they appear as they do, and how interactions between different substances could bring about the creation of new substances as well as the destruction of old ones. 

Note that from the earliest attempts at understanding this material world in precise and rational terms, chemists and scientists have struggled to come up with theories of matter, which can satisfactorily explain both change and permanence.  


The study of chemistry in Europe was performed by alchemists who had the goals to transform common metals into silver or gold and invent a chemical elixir that would help prolong human life. Although these ambitious goals were not achieved, some crucial discoveries were made in the attempt. 

From 1627 to 1691 Robert Boyle studied and analyzed the behavior of gases and successfully discovered the inverse relationship between pressure and volume of a gas. 

In 1661, Boyle wrote the first and important chemistry textbook called “The Sceptical Cymist”. The book moved the study of various substances toward scientific investigation and away from mystical links with alchemy.

Huge Strides in the 18th Century for What is Chemistry

In the 18th century, the theory of phlogiston (the substance at the root of combustion) was put forward by the famous German scientist, Georg Ernst Stahl. The theory was overturned by the end of the 18th century by the notable French chemist Antoine Lavoisier, often described as the chemical equivalent of Newton in physics.

Antoine Lavoisier did more work in the field than any other chemist to establish this new science on adequate and robust theoretical footing, by elucidating the important principle of conservation of mass as well as developing a new and reliable system of chemical nomenclature, which is used to this day. 

From 1776 to 1856 Amedeo Avogadro, an Italian lawyer, started to study mathematics and science. He expanded on the work of Charles and Boyle, and clarified the key differences between atoms and molecules. According to him, equal volumes of gas at the same pressure and temperature have the same number of molecules.

Dmitri Mendeleev was a famous Russian chemist who is still known for coming up with the first Periodic Table of the Elements. The chemist listed all the 63 known elements as well as their chemical properties on cards. When Dmitri Mendeleev arranged these elements in order of their increasing atomic mass, he was able to group elements that had similar properties. Every 7th element had similar properties with just a few exceptions.

20th Century Progress in the Field of Chemistry

Henri Becquerel discovered radiation in 1896. Along with Marie Curie and Pierre, he demonstrated that certain elements tend to emit energy at fixed rates. Becquerel shared an important Nobel Prize with Marie and Pierre Curie for the discovery of radioactivity in 1903. In 1900, Max Planck made the important discovery that energy is emitted in discreet units, which he called “quanta” (also called photons) and not in continuous waves. 

It seemed that atoms consisted of still smaller particles, and some of them could move away. Ernst Rutherford showed that atoms had a tiny and densely charged (positive) region which was surrounded by larger regions of empty space where still smaller and negatively charged particles (known as electrons) moved. Rutherford contended that these electrons orbited the nucleus in separate orbits, just like all the planets orbit the sun. 

Types of Chemistry 

As of 2018, there are a total of five different branches of chemistry. Each of these five branches tends to focus on a single aspect of the field and are very different in nature. 

1. Biochemistry 

Let’s start off with the most famous of them all. Many regard biochemistry as its own subject rather than a branch of chemistry. That said biochemistry is the study of chemical principals of basic biological systems.

 In other words, biochemistry is the understanding of how chemicals in the body interact with different parts of the body. Through biochemistry scientists have been able to properly understand organ/tissue transplantation, infectious diseases, regenerative medicine, and many more. Many scientists also refer to biochemistry as biological chemistry. 

2. Organic Chemistry

Organic chemistry is a very important subfield of the field and mainly focuses on the molecules of life. Scientists in this field mostly try to understand the atoms within these molecules and how these molecules affect the very nature of these molecules. 

Organic chemistry mostly revolves around plastics, fragrances, preservatives, and other types of consumable or biodegradable materials. These materials are things we use in our everyday life. Experts of organic chemistry try to synthesize new molecules out of existing molecules. The process is the basis of pharmaceutical drugs and agricultural fertilizer. Organic chemistry is also one of the only branches of chemistry that holds great relevance for other branches of chemistry. 

3. Inorganic Chemistry

Inorganic chemistry is in many ways the opposite of organic chemistry, as inorganic chemistry tends not to deal with carbon. Although there is a hybrid branch of both organic and inorganic chemistry, but that does not have any research that is fundamentally different from the two it is derived from. Inorganic chemistry also contains three different branches within itself, which consist of bioinorganic chemistry, materials chemistry, and catalysis. Catalysts are a very important part of chemistry as they affect the speed at which a reaction takes place. 

4. Physical Chemistry 

Physical chemistry is a hybrid branch of chemistry. The branch combines the teachings of two of the most significant branches of science physics and chemistry. The branch of the field studies the fundamental physical properties. These properties control the way molecules, atoms, and other chemical systems behave. Experts in this field look into a multitude of phenomenon such as how light and matter interact and how electrons arrange within molecules and atoms. These are two of the most famous fields that deal with physical chemistry.

5. Analytical Chemistry 

Analytical chemistry is the branch of chemistry that deals with quantification and identification of all the elements in a mixture. Experts in this field find new procedures that help measure mixtures more accurately. 

Moreover, if they do not invent new procedures, they tend to modify existing procedures in order to improve them. Analytical chemistry is also a very important part of chemistry as scientists analyze how to get accurate readings from various mixtures. Analytical chemistry plays a very big role in pharmaceutical companies where the slightest difference in volumes and measurements can change the intended effect of a mixture. 

Historical Summary

Chemistry can be defined as the study of the composition, properties, constitution and the transformation of matter as it undergoes sequential alterations in their molecules. The matter is said to be anything that occupies space and has mass. Chemistry acts centrally as a bridge to other natural sciences such as biology and geology. Chemistry endeavors to study the matter and its properties.

In ancient times, the study of chemistry encompassed various questions that it endeavored to answer such as the study of the composition of growth, water, a movement that modern chemistry provides answers.

Chemistry has various sub-branches that are independent, they share some of the basic principles.

The first hypothesis emerged in classical Greece when Aristotle came up with a definition of some four elements, namely air, water, earth and fire. Later on in the 17th and 18th century, scientists started digging deeper to reshape the ancient chemical traditions and generate a rigorous scientific discipline. 

Insights and Areas of Interest

Chemistry as natural science provides the scientists with great insight into the other physical sciences based on its powerful analytical tools useful in engineering applications. Other biologists and their related subjects such as psychology root their work in biochemistry although the different levels of organization influence each other. For instance, modern medicine is based on the biochemical processes of the human body.

Chemistry has great prowess in explaining the various phenomena in the world, ranging from the ordinary to the outlandish. For example, why does iron rust? What makes a substance like propane such efficient in the clean burning of fuels? How comes soot and diamond appear so different, yet they have the same chemical composition? Chemistry provides answers to these and many more. Getting the understanding of chemistry enables us to understand the world better.

The study of chemistry can be classified into various branches with subsets emphasizing on the chemical concepts. Biochemistry related to the study of the chemical found in living organisms such as the DNA found in the proteins. Analytical chemistry seeks to understand the exact chemical composition of various substances.

Inorganic chemistry relates to the study of substances that contain no carbon while organic chemistry studies elements that include carbon. Physical chemistry majors in the education of the physical properties of various chemicals.  Biophysical chemistry deals with the application the physical chemistry in the biological context.

The Field Summarized

The various transformations, interactions, and reactions studied in chemistry result from interactions between atoms. The interactions lead to disarrangements of the chemical bonds which are meant to hold the particles together.

Chemistry remains paramount since all you do is chemistry. Factually, even your body consists of chemicals. Chemical reactions occur when you eat, breathe or just sited relaxing. All matter consists of chemicals, so the significance of chemistry is that it is the study of everything.

Chemistry plays a vital role in tweaking molecules to interact correctly within the body. So many paramount medical process advancements in recent history came from the development of effective vaccines and antibiotics to treat bacterial and viral diseases.

Current Trends in Chemistry Word Chemistry

The field is growing and more important than ever. Many current trends in the field pose serious implications for our future. Here are just a few areas in which the subject is making headlines.

Chemical Solutions to Carbon Dioxide

A huge issue in the next 30 years is climate change. Scientists know carbon dioxide plays a large role in the pollution of our air. Likewise, we know carbon dioxide contributes to the breakdown of our atmosphere. Continued ignorance to the issue leads to further problems for future generations. An area where chemistry plays a role in the issue is in the break down of carbon dioxide. For example, smokestacks in factories are a great example of how bad carbon dioxide is for the air. Chemicals created by researchers help to break down carbon dioxide in smokestacks before it ever enters the atmosphere. This and many other environmental issues pose great areas of research for those in the field.

Controlling Superbugs and Protecting the Public

A major threat to a growingly global world are superbugs. Superbugs are deadly bacterial viruses with which the body struggles to fight off. If a superbug gains strength in a community, then everyone is at risk. Current studies in chemistry look to find ways to fight superbugs. The easiest solution is to motorize molecules to fight the virus at its core. While this isn’t easy, and does not prevent their arrival in the first place, it provides an easy solution to fending superbugs off. The threat of biochemical terrorism makes the study of superbug solutions important as well. Should a country ever release a superbug onto an enemy, it’s important to the lives of thousands to have a plan in place.


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