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Chemistry as a Science?

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Chemistry is a branch of science. Although science itself is difficult to define exactly, the following definition can serve as starting point. Science is the process of knowing about the natural universe through observation and experiment. Science is not the only process of knowing (e.g., the ancient Greeks simply sat and thought), but it has evolved over more than 350 years into the best process that humanity has devised to date to learn about the universe around us.

The process of science is usually stated as the scientific method, which is rather naïvely described as follows: (1) state a hypothesis, (2) test the hypothesis, and (3) refine the hypothesis. Actually, however, the process is not that simple. (For example, I don’t go into my lab every day and exclaim, “I am going to state a hypothesis today and spend the day testing it!”) The process is not that simple because science and scientists have a body of knowledge that has already been identified as coming from the highest level of understanding, and most scientists build from that body of knowledge.

An educated guess about how the natural universe works is called a hypothesis. A scientist who is familiar with how part of the natural universe works—say, a chemist—is interested in furthering that knowledge. That person makes a reasonable guess—a hypothesis—that is designed to see if the universe works in a new way as well. Here’s an example of a hypothesis: “if I mix one part of hydrogen with one part of oxygen, I can make a substance that contains both elements.”

Most good hypotheses are grounded in previously understood knowledge and represent a testable extension of that knowledge. The scientist then devises ways to test if that guess is or is not correct. That is, the scientist plans experiments. Experiments are tests of the natural universe to see if a guess (hypothesis) is correct. An experiment to test our previous hypothesis would be to actually mix hydrogen and oxygen and see what happens. Most experiments include observations of small, well-defined parts of the natural universe designed to see results of the experiments.

**Why do we have to do experiments? Why do we have to test? Because the natural universe is not always so obvious, experiments are necessary. For example, it is fairly obvious that if you drop an object from a height, it will fall. Several hundred years ago (coincidentally, near the inception of modern science), the concept of gravity explained that test. However, is it obvious that the entire natural universe is composed of only about 115 fundamental chemical building blocks called elements? This wouldn’t seem true if you looked at the world around you and saw all the different forms matter can take. In fact, the concept of the element is only about 200 years old, and the last naturally occurring element was identified about 80 years ago. It took decades of tests and millions of experiments to establish what the elements actually are. These are just two examples; a myriad of such examples exists in chemistry and science in general.

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