I am an engineering student who loves physics but didn't quite enjoy chemistry.

a. When I was in high school chemistry to me was something not as inspiring as physics but in which I couldn't solve problems well. Things looked no more than the arithmetics, but I got the answers wrong.

b. Reading university chemistry textbooks (e.g. Oxtoby, Principles of Modern Chemistry 7E) I thought it was more of the physics behind the chemical objects and their reactions. Like quantum mechanics, electrodynamics, thermodynamics, statistical mechanics, ... they are just called differently - quantum chemistry, thermochemistry, chemical kinetics.

c. So I question the significance of existence of chemistry. No offence, it's a pure curiosity. I now believe that all fields of study must be respected, and I want to take a step to do so by understanding the true meaning of chemistry.

Q1. Why isn't chemistry as science-looking as other natural sciences?

Q2. Why isn't chemistry a mere branch of physics? (Why is it distinguishable?)

Q3. So what do chemists research?

Q4. Please give me any important insight about chemistry as a discipline.

Nowadays, I am very interested in chemistry, and want to learn it again at a broader viewpoint, with the proper philosophy of appreciating it. Could any chemist help.

Edited 1. I guess many people dislike and downvoted this post simply because I proposed a view (kind of) against chemistry. I will not delete the post - it is definitely worth leaving it as it is, because there is a nice answer and I consider that can help many other students ovecome difficulties of studying chemistry.

Edited 2 (My answer to this question).

Now I fully understood the need for chemistry. Sadly I couldn't post my own answer as the question was closed, so I am simply adding it here. Studying some more quantum mechanics, I realised that it provides a good basis for the theoretical understanding of facts through idealised models, but perhaps the only way it can directly contribute to the real world is through experiments and useful numerical values. That's the experimental physics aspect of chemistry that makes it meaningful.

Another important fact is chemistry itself being a theoretical basis for many other fields, such as molecular biology or chemical engineering. As an example, I would say that it is both practically and theoretically impossible and meaningful to think about the wave functions every single time we consider chemical processes. Various numerical measures in chemistry, such as the equilibrium constant, allow us to focus more on the essence of what's happening in other natural phenomena.

The final thing I want to emphasise is that contemporarily the boundaries between all of the natural sciences and even engineering have become much less explicit and most research is being conducted under interdisciplinary circumstances. I realised this after learning some proper physics and general chemistry. And general chemistry is like a collection of 100-year-old theories. The interconnections between various fields of studies in the modern sciences are so complex that I cannot, or anybody else would also be unable to, express.

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    $\begingroup$ Everything that happens in your body is the result of a chemical process, why wouldn't you want to study that? $\endgroup$ – Waylander Dec 26 '20 at 9:53
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    $\begingroup$ Chemistry is a branch of physics, albeit a huge one. $\endgroup$ – Ivan Neretin Dec 26 '20 at 9:57
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    $\begingroup$ The division of sciences is historical and in most real problems requires the utilization of more than one. You can cut them however you want. It is not much to do with the question if you enjoy them or not. $\endgroup$ – Greg Dec 26 '20 at 11:42
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    $\begingroup$ See en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_chemistry_and_physics $\endgroup$ – Karsten Theis Dec 26 '20 at 12:55
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    $\begingroup$ I've started an answer going through your points but I've realised I was in all cases repeating the same two concepts. Chemistry is a variegated discipline with a lot of physics involved. Even taking apart the physics of chemistry, the latter remains a discipline itself. This is because you can't reduce the enormous number of chemical problems and applications to just physics. Note that this happens without considering branch of engineering type, for which the situation is then similar in other sciences/discipline. Consider that chemical engineering as a speciality usually requires.... $\endgroup$ – Alchimista Dec 26 '20 at 14:28

Interesting question but keep in mind that it is normal to dislike a subject. You don't have to like chemistry. Many people loathe physics and mathematics. The world is not affected. I am sure your experience is limited to general chemistry and Oxtoby. In statistical terms, one cannot and should not trust a single sample (=experience). However, some of your complaints and thoughts are worth commenting.

a) First of all beware that real life is greyish without clear cut boundaries and modern science is more so. One cannot separate the knowledge of physics and mathematics from chemistry. As someone jokingly said, "Chemistry is the physics of the outermost electron." So a "chemist" must also study the traditional topics studied by physics students such as quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, and statistical mechanics etc. Since they wish to study the applications of thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, kinetics it is fair to call that thermochemistry (=thermodynamics applied to chemical problems not engines), quantum chemistry (quantum mechanics applied to chemical problems, molecular structure), chemical kinetics (study of the time behaviour of chemical reactions, rate laws, differential equations).

b) Using the same fallacious argument one may argue that engineering is an application of mathematics or it is a branch of applied mathematics. It does not have that science-looking characteristics. Why do engineering courses have differential equations? Matrices, Vectors? That is pure mathematics, Why do you need to learn programming, that is computer science, why do they need to learn English, this belongs to linguistics, why do you need to learn drawing, that is the artist's job. Again there are no clear cut boundaries in modern science and engineering.

(c) Regarding the "existence" of chemistry: This is a major misconception and it means you have not looked around carefully. Most of the modern and indispensable objects owe their existence due to the knowledge generated by hundreds of thousands of dedicated chemists in 300-400 years around the world. I am not counting the contributions of medieval scientists. Just look at your own laptop, how many plastic/polymeric and metallic components do you have? How did it become possible to make pure silicon chips? Organic LEDs? What about medicines in your cabinet, printer inks, what color of clothes are you wearing? How many lives the knowledge of chemistry and biology has saved? ALL modern medicines owe their existence due to the knowledge of chemistry and chemical synthesis including this corona vaccine.

Most of the early and important knowledge about atoms and elements came from people who were interested in chemistry.

Coming to the unfortunate part of Chemical Education. Yes, the early undergraduate chemical education is indeed in shambles whether it is a rich country or an economically deprived country. General chemistry teaching should be abolished from the first year courses because it is a mere collection of random facts. Gillespie, the man behind VSEPR model and a well respect famous Canadian chemist had written an interesting article 50 years ago. Chemistry-Fact or Fiction. He complained that chemistry does not attract the brightest students because the way early chemistry courses are taught. He emphasizes the same thing that there the emphasis is more on memorization of facts. Basically he points out a lot a flaws in the current chemical educational system He is making a general remark. But any serious chemistry teacher should read this article for the sake of inner reflection. It does not by default mean that all engineers are bright by default. There is no shortage of incompetent engineers in the world, just as there is no shortage of gifted and bright chemists.

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    $\begingroup$ Wow, what a gorgeous and clear answer. You summarise everything. Thank you very much $\endgroup$ – curious Dec 26 '20 at 16:04
  • $\begingroup$ If I want to learn general chemistry properly what do you think is the best way? $\endgroup$ – curious Dec 26 '20 at 16:05
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    $\begingroup$ I would say buy Linus Pauling's General Chemistry for bed-side reading. I dislike these modern gen chem. books. $\endgroup$ – M. Farooq Dec 26 '20 at 16:11

Why isn't chemistry as science-looking as other natural sciences?

For some reason chemistry is often taught badly (Khan Academy is probably the best place to start if you want to study the subject on your own). And there is less interesting information about chemistry on the internet relative to other disciplines. It's too far from the reality of a typical non-scientific person (relative to biology) and it's not as "dreamy", reality-quenstioning as let's say astrophysics/QM/etc.

Why isn't chemistry a mere branch of physics? (Why is it distinguishable?)

If you go deep enough you'll need lot's of physics. But:

  1. At a more practical level there's a huge jump in abstractions. And these high-level abstractions allow drawing useful conclusions and do useful work.
  2. Physics is too low-level and you'd need immense computing powers or different calculation approaches to calculate something practical at high level.

So what do chemists research?

An example of a task for cheminformatics (that I know of): reactivity prediction. You don't necessarily know if molecule A will react with molecule B (and how well) until you try it. And it would be beneficial to predict this better - so that bench chemists conduct fewer reactions to find the most efficient conditions (in terms of time/chemicals/environment) for synthesis of some molecule.

A more hands-on chemical example is drug discovery in pharma. You need to find a molecule which has therapeutic effect and doesn't kill you. For that chemists have to try to synthesise tens of thousands of drug-like molecules (they have to choose which ones to synthesise because there are millions or even billions of possible molecules to choose from), find the right conditions for a reaction to succeed, test whether the candidate has the right effect on a protein, has right chemical properties, whether it's not toxic, etc, etc.

This requires minituarization (running reactions at nano/micro scale) and automation to be done quickly & effectively - which is a big task on its own.

give me any important insight about chemistry as a discipline

I probably don't know such facts about the discipline itself, but just to interest you more in the subject.. If you look at periodic table (this one is great) - elements to the left of it will be less electronegative and thus will easily let electrons go and become positively charged. Elements on the right want electrons more and thus will try to take electrons away from other atoms/molecules and become negatively charged. In your body (it's mostly water - the solvent matter for these things) you have plenty of positive (Na+, K+, Ca++) and negative (Cl-) ions. These ions (and the fact that they are ions and not neutral particles is important) participate in physiological processes like muscle contraction, firing of nerve impulses.

PS: I'm not a chemist (though I work closely with chemists), take everything that I say with a boulder of salt.


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