From the days of alchemy people have been fascinated by elements and compounds and glass jars full of colourful liquids. It’s an area of science that touches on everything we do, but how much do you know about the wonderful world of chemistry?
Everything You Touch
Everything you touch is chemistry, it makes up all the physical things around us. Without chemistry there is no “us”! There are 94 naturally occurring chemical elements on earth and these combine with each-other in different ways to make things, whether it’s water, brass, oil or plastic, it boils down to chemical elements.
Our involvement in chemistry dates back a long, long time, possibly as much as 100,000 years. There is no way to identify a particular starting point, but whether it was fermenting wine or beer, smelting ores to produce metals or simply making pottery, that’s where human involvement in chemistry started. The importance of our understanding of chemistry cannot be overstated, to the point that we even named periods in human history after our activities with chemical: the Bronze Age, the Iron Age.
The ancient Greek philosophers did a lot of thinking about the properties of chemicals. They came up with many different ideas, including the famous one that there were only four elemental substances: earth, fire, air and water, as well as the idea that things may be made from indivisible and indestructible atoms.
Alchemy, the forerunner to proper chemistry, first started in Egypt in around the 4th century BC and was taken up in Europe from around the 12th century onwards. The objectives of alchemy were things like turning base metals into gold, finding the Elixir of Life or the philosopher’s stone. All very Harry Potter like activities!
The first modern chemist is generally regarded as Robert Boyle (1627 – 1691), but the father of modern chemistry is the French nobleman Antoine Lavoisier (1743 – 1794). Lavoisier made a number of fundamental discoveries in chemistry, thanks in part to careful and accurate measurement, but unfortunately had his head chopped of during the French Revolution.
Understanding of chemistry expanded enormously over the next hundred years and many major discoveries were made by a large number of people. Perhaps the most important was, not a chemical but the Periodic Table of the Elements, which explained an enormous amount about the properties of chemicals and even successfully predicted undiscovered elements.
Chemistry today is a very different business from the amazing discoveries in the days of the 18th and 19th century in laboratories that Dr Frankenstein would have recognised. But it is a science which is still rooted in the efforts and discoveries of scientists going back through history to (quite possible) the very first pint of beer! How much do you know about this amazing science? Find out with our quiz and then challenge your friends to have a go!