What is Chemistry?

You've all seen them, I'm sure.

Seen what, you ask?

Those shows.

You know -- the ones that feature chemistry in some way. They all (as far as I can tell, anyway), at some point, feature a shot of some bespectacled guy in a lab coat doing experiments in The Lab -- that place where you see a collection of pretty coloured solutions in glass containers on the bench top. Almost inevitably, some of the solutions will be bubbling mysteriously, and others collecting someplace after passing through a labyrinth of tubing.

As a result, to many people this is chemistry.

And, as a result, many people have the wrong idea.

Or maybe that's not your perception. Maybe chemistry conjures up images of people doing really dangerous things that they really shouldn't be. It certainly does for some, at least. And sure, some of the chemistry is concerned with making things go bang and little else. Probably the most famous example of this is the work of Alfred Nobel, whose prize (Chemistry winners) came about because he recognized the dual impact (destructive and beneficial) his work would have on society.

Maybe, though, I still don't have it right. Maybe you're more concerned about chemistry and its impact on us and the environment. After all, it's certainly not hard to find news stories about the damage that chemicals can do to it and us. Some of that damage is very far-reaching, too; global warming and the ozone layer are both well-known problems we face and must learn to manage and overcome, as are the water problems in Flint (Michigan) and other cities in the US.

I could go on, but you get the idea, I'm sure: Chemistry is many different things to many people. To leave it at that, though, wouldn't answer the question asked in the title of the article.

So what is Chemistry, then?

Probably the simplest (and, unfortunately, least informative) definition of chemistry is that it's the science of the study of the nature of matter. That, translated into English, means that a chemist studies what stuff is, what it does, and why it does what it does.

To sharpen up the definition a bit, I'll say now that Chemistry (as a subject of study, at least) is divided up into four distinct disciplines:

Organic: Organic chemistry gets its name from the fact that the compounds with which it is concerned were originally thought to originate only from living -- organic -- things. This has turned out to not be true (compounds qualifying as organic may be man-made as well), but the name for this area of chemistry has stuck all the same. There are now many millions of these compounds known, and the number is increasing daily.

Because of its tight link to living organisms, and because of the many ways in which carbon can combine with itself and other chemicals, it is impossible to overstate the reach of organic chemistry into everyday life. From the food you eat or the drugs you take or the clothes you wear and more, organic chemistry has, at one point or another, had a hand in developing or refining all of it. Organic chemistry has also been responsible, indirectly, for the hole in the ozone layer (some would say that physical chemistry has had a pretty big hand in this too), and for its solution(for which some credit should also go to physical chemistry). There are many more examples of the way in which organic chemistry permeates our everyday life, but these will have to wait for a longer treatise than what I've room for here.

Inorganic: If organic chemistry is all about the reactions of compounds containing carbon and hydrogen, then inorganic chemistry is the chemistry of "everything else".

What, then, is "everything else"?

Well, if you've ever heard the words "alloy" or "composite", then you've caught a glimpse of the stuff of inorganic chemistry. This is just the tip of the iceberg, too; inorganic chemistry deals with (for three examples) the chemistry of the batteries you use, the corrosion on your car, and the photographs you take (if you still use a film camera, that is...). Inorganic chemistry even impacts living beings, too: do you have a mercury filling, or have you had to have chelation therapy for heavy metal poisoning? Inorganic chemistry is behind all of these things, and more.

Physical: Physical chemistry is the predictive branch of chemistry, and as such is the one area of chemistry most concerned with trying to understand why compounds do what they do either on a molecule-by-molecule basis or as a collection in bulk. Physical chemistry has had its hands in the development of some of our most important inventions of the industrial age, too: refrigeration and the steam engine are but two of them. Because of its ties to those two inventions in particular, physical chemistry is also linked to the ozone hole problem and to global warming, and so must also play a role in finding their solutions. Physical chemistry has a reputation for being the "mathy-est" branch of chemistry, and that reputation is not undeserved: one path to understanding does require mathematical modelling, after all.

Analytical. Ever watch an episode of CSI? Analytical is the branch of chemistry that is most often represented there, as well as its cousin, forensic chemistry. An analytical chemist is someone who answers the "what" and "how much" questions. They are, for example, the people that analyze samples from athletes during the Olympics to see if the athletes have been doping (with chemicals created by the organic chemists...), or who analyze tap water for toxins (many of which are the province of the inorganic chemists...). Analytical and/or Forensic chemists are also the ones who can take a chip of paint from an accident scene and identify the car make and year from which it came.

All of the above is just a glimpse of what chemistry is all about. If you're interested, we'd love to teach you more.

What courses does Kwantlen offer that will teach me more about all this stuff?

Kwantlen offers a wide range of chemistry courses that will get you going in your chemistry career; once you've completed the first two years of our university transfer courses you'll be well on your way to a greater understanding and, perhaps, to being one of the people who work to solve some of our greatest challenges.

But what if I'm not planning to be a chemist?

If you're not planning to become a chemist (and we certainly can't all be chemists), our Chemistry 1101 course may be just the thing for you. Taking that course will give you a broad overview of the chemistry and chemical techniques behind forensic science. Worried about the necessary background? Don't be: we've set up the course so that people with no background can take it and succeed.

But in the end...

What you do and where you go is really all up to you. Hopefully, this page will have given you a brief overview of the influence of chemistry on everyday life and will make you want to know more. If you've questions, drop us a line and we'd be happy to answer them.