What is Chemistry?

Chemistry is an exciting and complex discipline, incorporating both discovery and creation. But what actually is Chemistry?

Chemistry is the science and art of converting one substance into another and the molecular interpretation of the world around us. It is at the molecular level that major advances are made in many diverse areas such as medicine, agriculture, biology, materials and the environment. Chemistry is considered to be the ‘central science’ because of its role in connecting the sciences (such as physics, biology and earth sciences). It plays a major role in our economy, environment, lifestyle and health, and in processes going on in the world around us.

Chemistry incorporates both discovery and creation. The chemist aims to discover the building blocks of the chemical universe, from molecules to organised chemical systems such as materials, devices, living cells and whole organisms. But we do not restrict ourselves to those components that already exist; we also investigate molecules, substances and interactions that could (and should) exist. For instance, medicinal chemists make new substances as potential cures for disease, sometimes starting from natural products discovered by chemists investigating plants and animals. Understanding how the properties of substances relate to the shape and composition of the molecules helps us design new molecules that have desirable properties, allows us to invent new types of reactions, and assists us as we design ways to manufacture and process the new substances.

What is chemistry

“Chemistry unlocks the mysteries of our world, from new understandings of the molecule to life itself”

More than a million new chemical compounds are being created every year, but the number of possible small and simple molecules, those that are about the size of a typical medicinal drug, exceeds the number of known compounds by a factor of well over 1,030. There is much to do in the creation and understanding of molecules that do not yet exist, and in developing the novel reactions that will be needed to make them.

As part of a chemists’ work, we want to understand the biological properties of both natural and artificial substances. This includes not only understanding the detailed molecular structures of chemicals found in living things, but also in understanding the reactions that go on in living systems, up to and including the complex multi-chemical system that is the Earth itself.

Chemistry underpins all aspects of bioengineering and biotechnology. Biosystems, from molecular assemblies to cells to organisms, require insight from synthetic and physical chemistry as well as analysis of complex chemical networks if they are to be understood and exploited for the benefit of society.

Research in chemistry is multi-disciplinary and requires a high level of cooperation across all aspects of chemistry and related fields. Chemists are conscious of the benefits to society of our work and we are increasingly involved in constructing, analysing, and using complex systems and assemblies, from cells to clouds, from drug design to understanding whole-earth systems.

Chemistry unlocks the mysteries of our world, from new understandings of the molecule to life itself. The chemical sciences will produce answers to our future energy needs and environmental challenges. They will deliver the materials of the future, and they will facilitate the deployment of practical biotechnology. Chemists are moving beyond the molecular frontier. The challenge is to form new understandings of our actual and our potential world, and to use that understanding to produce a better world.

Written by Dr Ian Jamie and Associate Professor Joanne Jamie (2011)
Department of Chemistry and Biomolecular Sciences
Macquarie University (Australia)