When you cut your hand a scab forms. After you swallow your food, your body digests it. Apples grow from tree branches. Caterpillars turn into butterflies.
How do these things happen? Chemistry!
Everything is made of matter — and now we know how it works. Matter is made up of atoms. So think of chemistry as the language and atoms as the individual letters. The laws of chemistry are like the rules of language. Using letters, you can build words by following the rules of language. Likewise, you can build any matter by following the rules of chemistry.
And because we know how atoms work and what they are, we have not only learned to understand how living and natural things work, but we’ve been able to make things like plastic, new metals, medical equipment and medicines. We have learned to read and write the language of matter. So now we have a world made of natural things and of things that are not natural. But they are all made up of the letters called atoms, and they all follow the rules of the language of chemistry. To this, there are no exceptions. Once you’ve understood chemistry, anything is possible.
We have learned to read and write the language of matter.
In order to appreciate chemistry we need to understand where it came from. It actually comes from the practice of alchemy. Alchemy was kind of sorcery, where men practiced boiling things, melting them, mixing them, chopping them up and pretty much doing everything you can do to stuff.
These alchemists were trying to turn things into different things without understanding what they were doing. Essentially they blindly practiced chemistry. The main goal of alchemy was to turn common metals like iron or copper into gold. Alchemists also wanted to discover the “fountain of youth” potion that would make men immortal.
Obviously, they did not succeed. But we’ve had alchemists as far back as ancient Egypt 3,000 years ago. These “magicians” managed to stick around through the roman era and all the way up until medieval Europe.
Yet it was the Irish born scientist Robert Boyle that put alchemy in its grave and replaced it with the science of chemistry in the 1600’s. This occurred during the 1600’s. [mnemonic moment: Robert’s last name is Boyle which sounds exactly like boil. And what other science except chemistry boils stuff!]
Anyhow, it was Boyle’s commitment to systematic experimentation and observation that began to form the notion that all matter was essentially comprised of tiny, indivisible particles of stuff. The same way you would discover, if you looked closer, that a lego space ship was made up of a bunch of individual pieces of lego. Now, this marked the beginning of our understanding of atoms. Even though the ancient Greeks had thought of the idea of atoms, they did not do much to explain what these atoms were or how they worked. Robert Boyle’s book entitled “The Sceptical Chymist” was published in 1661 and argued that we should stop thinking like the ancient Greeks when it came to understanding matter and atoms. The Greeks, you see, thought matter was made of four basic elements: fire, water, air and earth. With the publication of “The Skeptical Chymist” in 1661 we have the official end of alchemy and the birth of modern, scientific chemistry.
Over 200 years after Boyle’s seminal book, we began to discover the parts that make up the atom. The proton, neutron and electron. Interestingly, the electron was discovered first by Cambridge University’s J.J. Thompson in 1897. A little more than ten years later, Ernest Rutherford and his students described the proton. And the neutron was discovered in 1932 by one of Rutherford’s lab students named James Chadwick.
The modern science of chemistry has advanced deeper than the neutron and proton, but we’ll save that for later. The high school and early university years of chemistry are focused on the study of the atom in terms of just the electron, proton and neutron.
Once you learn the rules of chemistry, doing chemistry is as easy as playing a board game once you’ve learned the rules.
We aim to make each section in our tutorial series explained so simply, that anyone can learn all of chemistry and perform well in school and in their careers.
Who knows, you may very well be the man or woman who cures cancer or other diseases once you’ve learned the language of the natural world: chemistry.
To move on to the first tutorial, click here.