1.1 Chemistry in Context

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Outline the historical development of chemistry
  • Provide examples of the importance of chemistry in everyday life
  • Describe the scientific method
  • Differentiate among hypotheses, theories, and laws
  • Provide examples illustrating macroscopic, microscopic, and symbolic domains

Throughout human history, people have tried to convert matter into more useful forms. Our Stone Age ancestors chipped pieces of flint into useful tools and carved wood into statues and toys. These endeavours involved changing the shape of a substance without changing the substance itself. But as our knowledge increased, humans began to change the composition of the substances as well—clay was converted into pottery, hides were cured to make garments, copper ores were transformed into copper tools and weapons, and grain was made into bread.

Humans began to practice chemistry when they learned to control fire and use it to cook, make pottery, and smelt metals. Subsequently, they began to separate and use specific components of matter. A variety of drugs such as aloe, myrrh, and opium were isolated from plants. Dyes, such as indigo and Tyrian purple, were extracted from plant and animal matter. Metals were combined to form alloys—for example, copper and tin were mixed together to make bronze—and more elaborate smelting techniques produced iron. Alkalis were extracted from ashes, and soaps were prepared by combining these alkalis with fats. Alcohol was produced by fermentation and purified by distillation.

Attempts to understand the behaviour of matter extend back for more than 2500 years. As early as the sixth century BC, Greek philosophers discussed a system in which water was the basis of all things. You may have heard of the Greek postulate that matter consists of four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. Subsequently, an amalgamation of chemical technologies and philosophical speculations were spread from Egypt, China, and the eastern Mediterranean by alchemists, who endeavoured to transform “base metals” such as lead into “noble metals” like gold, and to create elixirs to cure disease and extend life (Figure 1.1.a).

A sketch depicts 4 people stirring and handling chemicals in an ancient laboratory. The chemicals are held in a variety of barrels and large cylinders. Several of the containers are being heated over burning embers. A large stove in the laboratory is filled with burning embers. There is also a large chest in the corner that is producing steam.
Figure 1.1a: This portrayal shows an alchemist’s workshop circa 1580. Although alchemy made some useful contributions to how to manipulate matter, it was not scientific by modern standards. (credit: Alchemist’s workshop by Lazarus Ercker provided by the Science History Institute, PD)

From alchemy came the historical progressions that led to modern chemistry: the isolation of drugs from natural sources, metallurgy, and the dye industry. Today, chemistry continues to deepen our understanding and improve our ability to harness and control the behaviour of matter. This effort has been so successful that many people do not realize either the central position of chemistry among the sciences or the importance and universality of chemistry in daily life.

Chemistry: The Central Science

Chemistry is sometimes referred to as “the central science” due to its interconnectedness with a vast array of other STEM disciplines (STEM stands for areas of study in the science, technology, engineering, and math fields). Chemistry and the language of chemists play vital roles in biology, medicine, materials science, forensics, environmental science, and many other fields (Figure 1.1b). The basic principles of physics are essential for understanding many aspects of chemistry, and there is extensive overlap between many subdisciplines within the two fields, such as chemical physics and nuclear chemistry. Mathematics, computer science, and information theory provide important tools that help us calculate, interpret, describe, and generally make sense of the chemical world. Biology and chemistry converge in biochemistry, which is crucial to understanding the many complex factors and processes that keep living organisms (such as us) alive. Chemical engineering, materials science, and nanotechnology combine chemical principles and empirical findings to produce useful substances, ranging from gasoline to fabrics to electronics. Agriculture, food science, veterinary science, and brewing and wine making help provide sustenance in the form of food and drink to the world’s population. Medicine, pharmacology, biotechnology, and botany identify and produce substances that help keep us healthy. Environmental science, geology, oceanography, and atmospheric science incorporate many chemical ideas to help us better understand and protect our physical world. Chemical ideas are used to help understand the universe in astronomy and cosmology.

A flowchart shows a box containing chemistry at its center. Chemistry is connected to geochemistry, nuclear chemistry, chemical physics, nanoscience and nanotechnology, materials science, chemical engineering, biochemistry and molecular biology, environmental science, agriculture, and mathematics. Each of these disciplines is further connected to other related fields including medicine, biology, food science, geology earth sciences, toxicology, physics, and computer science.
Figure 1.1b: Knowledge of chemistry is central to understanding a wide range of scientific disciplines. This diagram shows just some of the interrelationships between chemistry and other fields. (credit: Chemistry (OpenStax), CC BY 4.0).

What are some changes in matter that are essential to daily life? Digesting and assimilating food, synthesizing polymers that are used to make clothing, containers, cookware, and credit cards, and refining crude oil into gasoline and other products are just a few examples. As you proceed through this course, you will discover many different examples of changes in the composition and structure of matter, how to classify these changes and how they occurred, their causes, the changes in energy that accompany them, and the principles and laws involved. As you learn about these things, you will be learning chemistry, the study of the composition, properties, and interactions of matter. The practice of chemistry is not limited to chemistry books or laboratories: It happens whenever someone is involved in changes in matter or in conditions that may lead to such changes.

The Scientific Method

Chemistry is a science based on observation and experimentation. Doing chemistry involves attempting to answer questions and explain observations in terms of the laws and theories of chemistry, using procedures that are accepted by the scientific community. There is no single route to answering a question or explaining an observation, but there is an aspect common to every approach: Each uses knowledge based on experiments that can be reproduced to verify the results. Some routes involve a hypothesis, a tentative explanation of observations that acts as a guide for gathering and checking information. We test a hypothesis by experimentation, calculation, and/or comparison with the experiments of others and then refine it as needed.

Some hypotheses are attempts to explain the behaviour that is summarized in laws. The laws of science summarize a vast number of experimental observations, and describe or predict some facet of the natural world. If such a hypothesis turns out to be capable of explaining a large body of experimental data, it can reach the status of a theory. Scientific theories are well-substantiated, comprehensive, testable explanations of particular aspects of nature. Theories are accepted because they provide satisfactory explanations, but they can be modified if new data become available. The path of discovery that leads from question and observation to law or hypothesis to theory, combined with experimental verification of the hypothesis and any necessary modification of the theory, is called the scientific method (Figure 1.1c).

In this flowchart, the observation and curiosity box has an arrow pointing to a box labeled form hypothesis; make prediction. A curved arrow labeled next connects this box to a box labeled perform experiment; make more observations. Another arrow points back to the box that says form hypothesis; make prediction. This arrow is labeled results not consistent with prediction. Another arrow, labeled results are consistent with prediction points from the perform experiment box to a box labeled contributes to body of knowledge. However, an arrow also points from contributes to body of knowledge back to the form hypothesis; make prediction box. This arrow is labeled further testing does not support hypothesis. There are also two other arrows leading out from contributes to body of knowledge. One arrow is labeled much additional testing yields constant observations. This leads to the observation becomes law box. The other arrow is labeled much additional testing supports hypothesis. This arrow leads to the hypothesis becomes theory box.
Figure 1.1c: The scientific method follows a process similar to the one shown in this diagram. All the key components are shown, in roughly the right order. Scientific progress is seldom neat and clean: It requires open inquiry and the reworking of questions and ideas in response to findings (credit: Chemistry (OpenStax), CC BY 4.0).


Headshot of George Washington Carver c1910 – Restoration
Figure 1.1d: George Washington Carver (credit: Photo by Unknown, restored by Adam Cuerden, PD)

Scientists in Action: George Washington Carver, PhD.

George Washington Carver was born into slavery in Missouri. His interest in science started with taking care of plants at a young age. He is most famous for his contributions to agricultural chemistry, and he is credited with developing over 100 uses for the peanut. He was the first African American to have a national monument dedicated to him. The American Chemical Society dedicated his work as a National Historic Chemical Landmark in 2005.Learn more about Dr. George Washington Carver in this American Chemical Society Commemorative booklet [New Tab][PDF]. He was dedicated to the continuing education of poor farmers and took his Jessup wagon (think of it as a traveling lab) around to rural communities to share what he had learned. His epitaph reads “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honour in being helpful to the world.” If you’d like to, listen to an old audio recording of George Washington Carver [New Tab]

The Domains of Chemistry

Chemists study and describe the behaviour of matter and energy in three different domains: macroscopic, microscopic, and symbolic. These domains provide different ways of considering and describing chemical behaviour.

Macro is a Greek word that means “large.” The macroscopic domain is familiar to us: It is the realm of everyday things that are large enough to be sensed directly by human sight or touch. In daily life, this includes the food you eat and the breeze you feel on your face. The macroscopic domain includes every day and laboratory chemistry, where we observe and measure physical and chemical properties, or changes such as density, solubility, and flammability.

The microscopic domain of chemistry is almost always visited in the imagination. Micro also comes from Greek and means “small.” Some aspects of the microscopic domains are visible through a microscope, such as a magnified image of graphite or bacteria. Viruses, for instance, are too small to be seen with the naked eye, but when we’re suffering from a cold, we’re reminded of how real they are.

However, most of the subjects in the microscopic domain of chemistry—such as atoms and molecules—are too small to be seen even with standard microscopes and often must be pictured in the mind. Other components of the microscopic domain include ions and electrons, protons and neutrons, and chemical bonds, each of which is far too small to see. This domain includes the individual metal atoms in a wire, the ions that compose a salt crystal, the changes in individual molecules that result in a colour change, the conversion of nutrient molecules into tissue and energy, and the evolution of heat as bonds that hold atoms together are created.

The symbolic domain contains the specialized language used to represent components of the macroscopic and microscopic domains. Chemical symbols (such as those used in the periodic table), chemical formulas, and chemical equations are part of the symbolic domain, as are graphs and drawings. We can also consider calculations as part of the symbolic domain. These symbols play an important role in chemistry because they help interpret the behaviour of the macroscopic domain in terms of the components of the microscopic domain. One of the challenges for students learning chemistry is recognizing that the same symbols can represent different things in the macroscopic and microscopic domains, and one of the features that makes chemistry fascinating is the use of a domain that must be imagined to explain behaviour in a domain that can be observed.

A helpful way to understand the three domains is via the essential and ubiquitous substance of water. That water is a liquid at moderate temperatures, will freeze to form a solid at lower temperatures, and boil to form a gas at higher temperatures (Figure 1.1e) are macroscopic observations. But some properties of water fall into the microscopic domain—what we cannot observe with the naked eye. The description of water as comprised of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, and the explanation of freezing and boiling in terms of attractions between these molecules, is within the microscopic arena. The formula H2O, which can describe water at either the macroscopic or microscopic levels, is an example of the symbolic domain. The abbreviations (g) for gas, (s) for solid, and (l) for liquid are also symbolic.

An iceberg floating in a sea with sky above it is pictured. It has three right pointing arrows that are arranged vertically. The top arrow, middle, and bottom arrows each point to a molecular image of how the water molecules are organized in the air, ice, and sea, respectively. One water molecule contains 1 central oxygen represented by a red circle that is connected to two hydrogen atoms, each is represented as a white circle. In air, five water molecules are disconnected and widely spaced. In ice, the water molecules are bonded together into three connected rings, with each ring containing six water molecules. In the sea, the water molecules are very densely packed but are not bonded together. To the right of each molecular image (top to bottom), the symbol for water is given as H, subscript 2, O followed by its phase, ( g ), or ( s ) or ( l ), respectively.
Figure 1.1e: (a) Moisture in the air, icebergs and the ocean represent water in the macroscopic domain. (b) At the molecular level (microscopic domain), gas molecules are far apart and disorganized, solid water molecules are close together and organized, and liquid molecules are close together and disorganized. (c) The formula H2O symbolizes water, and (g), (s), and (l) symbolize its phases. Note that clouds are actually comprised of either very small liquid water droplets or solid water crystals; gaseous water in our atmosphere is not visible to the naked eye, although it may be sensed as humidity. (credit: modification of work by Gorkaazk, CC BY 3.0; in Chemistry (OpenStax), CC BY 4.0).

Exercise 1.1a

Check Your Learning Exercise (Text Version)

Matter consists of tiny particles that can combine in specific ratios to form substances with specific properties. Identify this statement as being most similar to a hypothesis, a law, or a theory. Explain your reasoning.

Check Your Answer[1]

Source: “Exercise 1.1a” is adapted from “Exercise 1.1-3b” in General Chemistry 1 & 2, a derivative of Chemistry (Open Stax) by Paul Flowers, Klaus Theopold, Richard Langley & William R. Robinson, licensed under CC BY 4.0.

Exercise 1.1b

Check Your Learning Exercise (Text Version)

At a higher temperature, solids (such as salt or sugar) will dissolve better in water. Identify this statement as being most similar to a hypothesis, a law, or a theory. Explain your reasoning.

Check Your Answer[2]

Source: “Exercise 1.1b” is adapted from “Exercise 1.1-3c” from General Chemistry 1 & 2, a derivative of Chemistry (Open Stax) by Paul Flowers, Klaus Theopold, Richard Langley & William R. Robinson, licensed under CC BY 4.0. ​

Exercise 1.1c

Check Your Learning Exercise (Text Version)

Identify the item in bold (also marked with an *) as a part of either the macroscopic domain, the microscopic domain, or the symbolic domain of chemistry. For those in the symbolic domain, indicate whether they are symbols for a macroscopic or a microscopic feature.

  1. A certain molecule contains one *H atom and one Cl atom.
  2. *Copper *wire has a density of about 8 g/cm3
  3. The bottle contains 15 grams of *Ni *powder.
  4. A *sulfur *molecule is composed of eight sulfur atoms.

Check Your Answer[3]

Source: “Exercise 1.1c” is adapted from “Exercise 1.1-5c” from General Chemistry 1 & 2, a derivative of Chemistry (Open Stax) by Paul Flowers, Klaus Theopold, Richard Langley & William R. Robinson, licensed under CC BY 4.0. ​

Attribution & References

Except where otherwise noted, this page is adapted JR van Haarlem from “1.1 Chemistry in Context” In General Chemistry 1 & 2 by Rice University, a derivative of Chemistry (Open Stax) by Paul Flowers, Klaus Theopold, Richard Langley & William R. Robinson and is licensed under CC BY 4.0. ​Access for free at Chemistry (OpenStax)

  1. hypothesis (a tentative explanation, can be investigated by experimentation)
  2. theory (a widely accepted explanation of the behaviour of matter);
  3. (a) Symbolic, Microscopic; (b) Macroscopic; (c) Symbolic, Macroscopic; (d) Microscopic


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Enhanced Introductory College Chemistry Copyright © 2023 by Gregory Anderson; Caryn Fahey; Jackie MacDonald; Adrienne Richards; Samantha Sullivan Sauer; J.R. van Haarlem; and David Wegman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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