Chemistry is a branch of  science that deals with the study of the composition, structure, properties and change of matter. 

Chemistry is chiefly concerned with atoms and their interactions with other atoms - for example, the properties of the chemical bonds formed between atoms to create chemical compounds.

Titration animation

An acid base reaction is a typical chemistry investigation showing pH changes and volume. image: wikipedia

As well as this, interactions including atoms and other phenomena - electrons and various forms of energy—are considered, such as photochemical reactions, oxidation-reduction reactions, changes in phases of matter, and separation of mixtures. Finally, properties of matter such as alloys or polymers are considered.

Chemistry is sometimes called "the central science" because it bridges other natural sciences like physics, geology and biology with each other. Chemistry is a branch of physical science but distinct from physics.

The origin of the word chemistry has been much disputed. The origin of chemistry can be traced to certain practices, known as alchemy, which had been practiced for several millennia in various parts of the world, particularly the Middle East.

A major concern of chemistry today are the reactions between chemical elements.

Principles of modern chemistry include:

Some of these may be regarded more strictly as physical chemistry.

A brief historic outline...

Early concepts of chemistry

Early civilizations, such as the Egyptians and Babylonians amassed practical knowledge concerning the arts of metallurgy, pottery and dyes, but didn't develop a systematic theory.

A basic chemical hypothesis first emerged in Classical Greece with the theory of four elements as propounded definitively by Aristotle stating that that fire, air, earth and water were the fundamental elements from which everything is formed as a combination. Greek atomism dates back to 440 BC, arising in works by philosophers such as Democritus and Epicurus. 


Statue sculpture interpretation of Democritus. image: Jean-Louis Lascoux/ wikipedia

In 50 BC, the Roman philosopher Lucretius expanded upon the theory in his book De rerum natura (On The Nature of Things).  Unlike modern concepts of science, Greek atomism was purely philosophical in nature, with little concern for empirical observations and no concern for chemical experiments.

In the Hellenistic world the art of alchemy first proliferated, mingling magic and occultism into the study of natural substances with the ultimate goal of transmuting elements into gold and discovering the elixir of eternal life. Alchemy was discovered and practised widely throughout the Arab world after the Muslim conquests,  and from there, diffused into medieval and Renaissance Europe through Latin translations.

Development of Chemistry as a formal science

Under the influence of the new empirical methods propounded by Sir Francis Bacon and others, a group of chemists at Oxford, Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke and John Mayow began to reshape the old alchemical traditions into a scientific discipline. Boyle in particular is regarded as the founding father of chemistry due to his most important work, the classic chemistry text The Sceptical Chymist where the differentiation is made between the claims of alchemy and the empirical scientific discoveries of the new chemistry. 

 He formulated Boyle's law, rejected the classical "four elements" and proposed a mechanistic alternative of atoms and chemical reactions that could be subject to rigorous experiment.


The useful formulas of Boyle's laws. image: wikipedia

The theory of phlogiston (a substance at the root of all combustion) was propounded by the German Georg Ernst Stahl in the early 18th century and was only overturned by the end of the century by the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier, the chemical analogue of Newton in physics; who did more than any other to establish the new science on proper theoretical footing, by elucidating the principle of conservation of mass and developing a new system of chemical nomenclature used to this day.

Discovery of different gases in air

Prior to his work, though, many important discoveries had been made, specifically relating to the nature of 'air' which was discovered to be composed of many different gases. 

The Scottish chemist Joseph Black (the first experimental chemist) and the Dutchman J. B. van Helmont discovered carbon dioxide, or what Black called 'fixed air' in 1754; Henry Cavendish discovered hydrogen and elucidated its properties and Joseph Priestley and, independently, Carl Wilhelm Scheele isolated pure oxygen.

Ball and stick model of carbon dioxide. image: wikipedia

English scientist John Dalton proposed the modern theory of atoms; that all substances are composed of indivisible 'atoms' of matter and that different atoms have varying atomic weights.

The development of the electrochemical theory of chemical combinations occurred in the early 19th century as the result of the work of two scientists in particular, J. J. Berzelius and Humphry Davy, made possible by the prior invention of the voltaic pile by Alessandro Volta. Davy discovered nine new elements including the alkali metals by extracting them from their oxides with electric current.

Classifying the elements

British William Prout first proposed ordering all the elements by their atomic weight as all atoms had a weight that was an exact multiple of the atomic weight of hydrogen. J. A. R. Newlands devised an early table of elements, which was then developed into the modern periodic table of elements  by the German Julius Lothar Meyer and the Russian Dmitri Mendeleev in the 1860s.  

The inert gases, later called the noble gases were discovered by William Ramsay in collaboration with Lord Rayleigh at the end of the century, thereby filling in the basic structure of the table.

Organic chemistry was developed by Justus von Liebig and others, following Friedrich Wöhler's synthesis of urea which proved that living organisms were, in theory, reducible to chemistry.  

The chemical structure of urea. image: wikipedia

Other crucial 19th century advances were; an understanding of valence bonding (Edward Frankland in 1852) and the application of thermodynamics to chemistry (J. W. Gibbs and Svante Arrhenius in the 1870s).


online text book resource