Chemistry can be described many ways, because it plays a part in our understanding the natural world from any perspective. Scientists in all fields use chemistry and the physical principles taught in chemistry courses even if they do not know they are using them. Material experienced by such a wide variety of individuals will be described in a very diverse manner.
In a more formal sense, chemistry is traditionally divided into five major subdisciplines: organic chemistry, biochemistry, inorganic chemistry, analytical chemistry, and physical chemistry. The types of problems studied in each subdiscipline are different, and the skills needed to be a practicing chemist in each discipline are different. At the heart of each, however, is a fundamental desire to understand the Universe on a molecular level.
Below are some descriptions of each of the subdisciplines of chemistry. The faculty hope they help you approach an understanding of the diversity of problems chemists investigate.
Organic chemistry is the study of carbon and its compounds, particularly carbon in combination with hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and often the halogens. There are three major topics of interest to the average organic chemist: Synthesis, whereby the chemist tries to come up with methods to prepare specific compounds of interest, such as novel drug candidates; Mechanism, which is the study of the detailed flow of electrons within and between molecules, leading to a particular outcome for a reaction; Spectroscopy, wherein the chemist studies the interaction of a material with electromagnetic radiation of various wavelengths in order to determine its properties, and ultimately its structure.
The field of chemistry is diverse. At any one time around the world, people called chemists are making new molecules, ensuring compliance with environmental laws, probing the secrets of stars and the origins of life, and teaching computers to predict the behavior of matter. The reason all these pursuits can be called chemistry is two fold. First, all chemists have an interest in molecules, the basic building blocks of everything. Second, all chemical pursuits share a set of common underlying principles. These are the principles of quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, kinetics, and statistical mechanics. These principles unify our understanding of the natural world and make diverse phenomena part of the same whole. These unifying principles are the subject of physical chemistry.
Organic chemistry has often been defined as the chemistry of the living, and inorganic chemistry defined as nonliving chemistry. Those broad generalizations have provided limitless areas for investigation, but are not entirely accurate.
Inorganic chemistry arose from the arts and sciences of dealing with minerals and ores. Such questions as how to convert naturally occurring substances such as flint or chert into tools or how to convert metal ores (many of them metal oxides, carbonates or sulfides) into free metals were investigated during the middle Pleistocene age.
Modern inorganic chemistry has grown to encompass such areas as new high-temperature superconductors, metal cluster catalysis and metalloenzyme processes. No single definition can possibly portray the many, varied aspects of inorganic chemistry which leads to endless possibilities for learning.
Biochemistry is the study of the chemistry of living systems. In a very real sense, biochemistry involves the use of principles of general chemistry, organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, analytical chemistry, and physical chemistry applied to the understanding of biological systems. We examine how living organisms function at the molecular level by looking at the basic molecular structures, systems, reactions, and other chemical and physical processes which occur with those systems. But in order to understand a living system, we must then examine how those molecules, systems, and processes are inextricably interrelated in a complex web of interactions. To do this, we study the structures of the various classes of biomolecules (such as proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, and nucleic acids), how their activity is affected by their structures, and how they interact with one another in an incredibly complex and dynamic array of metabolic processes which transfer, store, and release energy to meet the needs of the organism.