Chemistry is a subject whose workings you see all around you. Just think for a little moment and you can be sure that each thing you consider – natural or artificial – functions or exists because of the discoveries we’ve made in this science. Lightbulbs? That’s chemistry. Refuelling a car? Chemistry. Frying eggs? Whilst cooking you’re literally watching chemical reactions in action.
Really, it’s hard to exaggerate the role that chemistry plays in our lives. Particularly as we ourselves are made up of the atoms and molecules that we study in the discipline. All of biology is too, and there is only one subject to thank for the way we breathe, see, move, and eat.
So, if you’re sat in your chemistry course at school thinking about how much you hate the subject, about how much you can’t be bothered, about how boring or pointless it is – remember that there’s nothing more fundamental to the world than the things you’ll be studying there. Chemistry is anything but pointless.
To prove this, we’ve taken the most interesting things from the world of chemistry out of the textbook. We’ve developed an introduction to chemistry that is not all functional groups, atomic structure, and acids and bases. Whilst high school chemistry might not be, we’re out to show you that chemistry in the real world is fun.
Let’s take a quick run through some of the most important ideas in general chemistry that you will need to grasp – the sort of stuff that any scientist will take for granted. Where do we start? You guessed it: the periodic table of the elements.
Of course, you have seen this in every laboratory or chemistry class into which you’ve ever been. No department of chemistry is complete without one. But what’s it for?
You’ve heard of elements, right? The pure substances that we refer to with names such as oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, potassium. These are substances that can’t be reduced to anything different – and these are the things shown on the periodic table.
The table is arranged in order of the reactivity of each element, from the least reactive to the most, and in order of the atomic number of each.
Remember this one, as you’ll see it everywhere.
Mendeleev’s Periodic Table – all the elements of chemistry!
But the bread and butter of physical chemistry is the chemical reaction. This is the name for what happens when you burn toast, when you breathe, when you light a fire – when you do pretty much anything. This is really what you study in class.
We know that everything around us is made up relations between one type of molecule or atom and other different types, often formed together with bonds (here the pure molecules form compounds). However, these molecular relationships are never stable, as they change when heat or another particular substance might be present.
When these change – and when the molecules, or the ions or electrons that make up these molecules, are rearranged – this is what we mean by a chemical reaction.
We’ve all surely come across acids and bases before. Some of us probably use acids most days – as things like lemons and vinegar are acidic.
Bases may well be less familiar. But if you’ve ever washed your hands with soap, or used bleach to clean the sink, you’ll have come into contact with a base (these are often known as alkali).
The theory goes that, in chemical reactions, acids release a proton to the reactant, whilst bases steal them. Believe it or not, this seemingly straightforward process is the main reason behind the difference.
If you want more detail about any of these ideas, check out our article on the most important concepts in chemistry!
The citric acid from lemons is a common acid – chemistry you eat all the time!
But as you will know, as a chemistry student, the subject is full of theoretical and analytical terms that you just need to sit down and learn. If you want to be a successful chemist, you’ve just got to do it – and we all know that this can be one of the least interesting parts of learning anything!
So, do you know what a polymer is, or a hydrocarbon? Do you know the difference between a covalent bond and an ionic bond? Any idea what a catalyst or a chemical product might be? or what oxidation, distillation, or titration might mean?
We’ve put together a glossary of essential chemistry terminology in an article that outlines crucial terms in your chemistry syllabus. If you’re thinking about chemical structure, about states of matter, or you are starting on your first chemistry experiments.
Talking of performing an experiment, you’ll be able to do a whole lot of nothing without the correct equipment.
You’ve probably wondered at some point why precisely your chemistry department is so full to the brim with stuff that you’ve never seen outside the chemistry lab. The answer to this is that you need all sorts of tools to perform a chemical experiment effectively and – crucially – safely.
The basic chemistry gadget is the Bunsen burner, a gas pipe that produces a very hot, clean, and clear flame. Heat often induces the chemical change or physical change that you will be observing and analysing, so the Bunsen burner has become the primary tool of modern chemistry.
But to study any chemical processes with this, it is likely that you will require test tubes, a flask, pipettes, and burettes – and certainly goggles and gloves to ensure you don’t hurt yourself.
And to understand the composition of the substance with which you are working, some tools will help you reach an explanation: Litmus paper, a thermometer, and a molecular model.
Check out the full list of chemistry equipment in our dedicated article on the topic!
If we were to say Lavoisier, Dalton, or Berzelius, would you know what we were talking about? How about Mendeleev or Nobel? Would Linus Pauling ring any bells?
All these people have something in common: they are some of the most important chemists ever to have lived!
Have you ever thought about who discovered the chemical elements? or how all these strange theories of chemical properties or chemical analysis ended up in your textbooks? Well, you have these people to thank (or blame!).
Since the eighteenth century, people have been busy thinking, writing, and experimenting, so to understand what on earth actually happens when you heat up gases, or what those chemical bonds might actually be like. Your chemistry textbook didn’t just fall from the sky full of knowledge. People worked to develop these ideas, and their contribution to science has been astounding.
Use the link here to check out who these people were, and who the most significant chemists of all time have been.
As we said above, everything around us is chemistry, from medicines to the stuff we use to grow foods. But it’s worth repeating: everything you touch is the result of a chemical process.
Take the screen on which you are reading this as an example. What is it made of? How does it show these words that you are reading now? How can it have ended up being so small – when we think of the huge television screens we had only a decade or so ago?
The mobile phone and laptop are both inventions made possible by chemistry. This isn’t something people often recognise!
These are questions of chemistry, and this thing you are looking at is made of chemical compounds that are the result of dedicated experimentation. You can thank a man called George Gray for the invention of this particular technology. His chemistry research has changed not only how we read information, but how we talk to our friends and family, how we buy things, and how we work. None of this would have been possible without Gray’s screen, which allowed us to put our computers in our pockets!
From the radioactive elements that treat cancer to the malleable plastic in which we wrap everything – you’ll find details on the some of the most life-changing scientists and their chemical discoveries in our article here.
To top it off, we have compiled a little list of some of the most amazing facts about chemistry.
Chemistry is so much more than the lecture that your teacher gives you in class, so much more than the equation and notation you have to practise for homework.
So, you probably won’t be too surprised to hear right now that things like Coca-Cola and fireworks are chemistry inventions (and their stories are quite amazing!).
But, on the other hand, you might not know that the chemical elements in your body are worth only about sixty pence – or that just the carbon in your body can make almost ten thousand pencils!
From bees and wasps, to water, chess, and glass, chemistry comes up in some really surprising places.