The story of chemistry is a human adventure of both mind and action. From very early times, chemists have sought to expand our understanding of matter, from the atomic to the galactic. Meanwhile, they have contributed to the modern world as we know it, through new materials, medicines, and technologies, as well as environmental problems and solutions. Look for an expanding set of themes under which chemists have pursued their investigations over time.
The Chemical Revolution of the late 18th century was based in large part on Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier's new understanding of the chemical role of a gas—oxygen. His successors further explored the character of gases, and their advances proved of great importance to modern society.
The field of electrochemistry began as an exploration of fundamental forces at work in the universe—among them, the relationship between electricity and chemical change. But with its many practical applications, it has become a cornerstone of industry, technology, and medicine.
The periodic table has its origins in the early 19th century, when John Dalton first calculated the relative weights of atoms and compounds. Although the method for calculating atomic weights was disputed for another 50 years, in the long run atomic weights provided the key to organizing the elements into the periodic table.
Chemistry and physics overlap at the atomic and nuclear level. Appropriately, several of the pioneers in the study of atomic and nuclear structure are more commonly identified as physicists, but the line between chemist and physicist at this level is hard to draw, and the Nobel prizes for this kind of work are granted in both categories.
From the early days of the Chemical Revolution, scientists concerned themselves with how and why compounds form. More than a century of work in the field of organic chemistry produced new theories of molecular structure and bonding, theories that in time were transferred to the rest of chemistry.
The 20th century brought critical breakthroughs in refining petroleum to produce gasoline and other fuels. Closely related to these advances was the discovery of how to make small molecules polymerize into long-chain hydrocarbons to form plastics and other synthetic materials that are an integral part of our modern world.
The study of how molecules function in living bodies owes a great deal to the work of those chemists who determined the structure of these same molecules—biomolecules—and sometimes synthesized them.
Chemists and chemistry have long been at the heart of efforts to preserve and restore good health by means of medicines. Where once medicines were discovered by trial and error, increasingly over time chemists and other scientists have made their discoveries on the basis of more and more detailed knowledge of biomolecules.
Scientific progress and industrial growth have made many contributions to humanity’s quality of life. Industrialization and urbanization, however, have created problems that demand solutions, and scientists both past and present have alerted the public to these dangers and proposed appropriate solutions.
Microelectronics and nanotechnology are closely related fields that investigate the properties—electrical and others—of the very small. The word nanotechnology was first used in 1974, but by then scientists had long been working with entities smaller than a nanometer, including films just one molecule thick.
The notion of a new kind of engineer—a chemical engineer—who understood both chemical processes and mechanical equipment was first broached in England around 1880. The idea first took firm root, however, in the United States in the 1890s.
Chemists have long passed along their specialized knowledge to students in classroom settings, and to apprentices and new employees in workplaces. They also are expected to use their expertise to benefit the wider society by advising governments as well as in creating new knowledge and beneficial products.