Why Study Chemistry?

Below is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of 

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Chemistry

 By Ian Guch
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“Chemistry” is a hard word to define. Some chemistry textbook covers show pictures of bubbling flasks, suggesting that chemistry can be defined as “the study of how we can make things behave if we mess with it in the laboratory.” Other chemistry books have pictures of huge molecules on the cover, suggesting that chemistry is defined as “the study of how we can cram atoms together to make big complicated structures.”

I’ve even seen a textbook cover that featured a multicolored squiggle. I have no idea what that says about the study of chemistry. It seems to me that if we put these two definitions of chemistry together, we get a reasonable idea of what the subject actually entails. Chemistry can be defined as using our knowledge of how matter is put together and how it interacts with other matter to solve confusing problems.

Some of the confusing problems that you’ll have to solve can be found in any chemistry textbook (including this one). A typical example:

“What is the volume of 556 grams of steam at a temperature of 2300° Celsius and a pressure of 35.40 atmospheres?”

You’re already painfully aware that these problems aren’t important in our everyday lives.   When will you ever need to find the volume of 556 grams of steam under the conditions indicated in the problem? Probably never.

So the obvious question is this: If I just told you that you’ll never need to solve these problems in the real world, why do you need to learn chemistry?

The reason you have to learn how to solve problems like this is that they really do have applications in the real world. Knowing how to find the volume of 556 grams of steam under extreme conditions may not be something you’ll be doing in the future, but you can bet that if you do anything scientific in the future, the law that allows you to answer this question will come in handy. Like basic arithmetic, basic chemistry is useful because it gives you the tools to solve real-world problems.


Read the rest of this chapter here