Chemistry begins in the stars. The stars are the source of the chemical elements, which are the building blocks of matter and the core of our subject.
~ Peter Atkins ~
Over time, discoveries in chemistry have changed the way we work and live. The contribution of chemical discoveries to other sciences, including biology, medicine, engineering and agriculture – amongst many other disciplines – has provided us with new technology, transforming the way we eat, communicate and fight disease. The achievements of some famous chemists cannot be overstated, as the modern world would not be recognisable without them.
We have a lot to thank our scientists for. Here are a few we should be grateful for.
Medicinal Chemistry Discoveries
Back in 1928, Alexander Fleming, a Scottish doctor, pharmacologist, and bacteriologist, was running some experiments in his lab. He had been growing a certain bacteria in a petri dish when he discovered one of his samples had contracted a mould. However, this wasn’t any mould. This mould was killing the bacteria in his experiment!
The mould came to be known as penicillin and became one of the most important medical discoveries ever made. But this wasn’t thanks to Fleming alone. When he published a paper about his research and discovery of penicillin, no-one took much notice – apart from Howard Florey and Ernst Boris Chain, two biochemists who went on to further study and build on his discovery.
The three scientists together won the Nobel Prize for their work on penicillin, which is thought to have since saved two hundred million lives.
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You might not have heard of Taxol, but, as one of the most important chemical discoveries, you would know of its impact: it is one of the most effective treatments of cancer in the world. Taxol prevents cells from dividing, ultimately leading to the death of the cell. For cancer, whose cells notoriously divide very rapidly, Taxol is like a poison.
It was discovered back in the 1960s when Monroe Wall and Mansukh Wani were collecting tree samples as part of a US National Cancer Institute project to find new substances with which to fight cancer. These two medicinal chemists sampled many trees and plants and discovered a substance toxic to cells within the Pacific Yew Tree, which they called paclitaxel. For over 25 years, it underwent systematic laboratory research before it was finally used on human patients in 1992.
Since then, paclitaxel has proved to be so effective that environmental campaigners have become worried about the potential threat to the Pacific Yew with the ongoing production of the drug. As a result, scientists are beginning to study and search for the existence of the chemical in alternative biological sources.
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Once upon a time, if you needed surgery, the only process available to ease the pain was to ply you with alcohol and hope for the best. It wasn’t until many years later, in the middle of the nineteenth century, that this really changed. William Morton – a dentist and amateur chemist – discovered that animals passed out after inhaling sulphuric ether. In 1846, Morton led an ostentatious show, when he performed dental surgery on an anaesthetised human patient in front of an applauding crowd.
After this, Morton claimed that anaesthesia was his discovery, however, this isn’t strictly true. Both opium and alcohol were effective substances for pain relief, and the history books also show a type of ether had been used way back in 1525, by Paracelsus.
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Chemical Discoveries in Farming and Food
In this modern era, we know that when you heat up food or drink, you kill the bacteria in it. But this scientific understanding is not something that we have always had.
The process and understanding of heat and bacteria interactions have been the subject of study by many people in the past – China, in the twelfth century, Japan in the sixteenth century and Italy in the 1700s. However, Louis Pasteur is the chemist credited with the discovery of pasteurisation because he linked heat to the death of bacteria. Nowadays, his is definitely the most famous exploration of the subject, and his name is the one associated with its scientific origin.
Pasteur’s discovery occurred when he heated wine, apparently while he was on holiday in 1864. The process of pasteurisation, however, is now primarily associated with milk, which is known to be a common breeding ground for dangerous bacteria. Many people still choose to drink unpasteurised milk, however, we have Pasteur to thank for the fact we can drink milk without becoming ill.
Eighty per cent of the air we breathe is nitrogen – one of the elements essential for life. However, in the chemical world, nitrogen is so unreactive that plants and animals — both of which need nitrogen to grow and thrive — have had to develop a complex biological method to extract nitrogen from the air.
In the past, nitrogen had to be sourced from bones and animal faeces. At the turn of the twentieth century, scientists started trying to develop an artificial method of nitrogen extraction for agricultural purposes as well as for weapon technology and production. One method — the most energy and labour efficient — was proposed by Fritz Haber and then made into a massive industry process by Carl Bosch. Hence, the Haber-Bosch Process was born.
The Haber-Bosch Process is one of the most important chemical discoveries in the history of human civilisation. The process has allowed agriculture to quadruple in efficiency — there would be four times more farmland across the globe without it — and has been the force that has allowed for the growth of the human population over the last century.
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Chemical Technology that Changed Our Lives
Plastic is absolutely everywhere: mobile phones, cars, throughout your kitchen, plastic carry bags, toys and even most of our clothes. Do we know who invented plastic? Sort of.
While plastic is most often synthetic – made by a human – the similar category of chemical compounds, polymers, are naturally occurring. So whether we can classify this in among other chemistry inventions is debatable because rubber, which is like plastic, has been used by indigenous peoples of South and Central America for centuries.
The first person to construct a human-made plastic was Alexander Parkes, who created the rather daftly named Parkesine in 1855. An inventor, Parkes intended for this plastic to be used as a waterproof coating for fabric clothes.
Although Parkes and his company went bankrupt, his invention kickstarted the early plastic industry. In 1907, an American chemist, Leo Baekeland, created another humbly-named plastic, Bakelite, which was simply a malleable chemical substance made from two other chemicals.
Soon after, Bakelite began to be used in all sorts of machines and technology, and the world of plastic as we know it now was born.
One of the most important chemistry discoveries in the last half a century has been liquid crystal display (LCD) screens. Smartphones and social media have revolutionised our lives and this has only been made possible because of the LCD screen — lightweight, small and fits in your pocket. The culture in which we walk around with our phones and laptops all the time could not have thrived without this technology.
Although scientists were aware of the benefits of liquid crystal back in the 1960s, it was believed the technology wouldn't work at anything less than a very high temperature to keep the crystal liquid. However, the British Ministry of Defence wanted smaller screens in their vehicles, so they commissioned a chemist – George Gray – to study the phenomenon. His study led to the discovery and later production of a particular molecule that functioned at a lower temperature. It is this innovation — the 5CB molecule — that is now found in most LCD screens.
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Radiation — A Great Scientific Discovery
Out of all scientists to study chemistry, Marie Curie is one most famously associated with the discovery of radioactivity. She was part of a team of chemists and physicists who were tasked to work on x-rays, radiation and radioactive chemical elements like uranium and radium.
Radioactivity was actually discovered by Henri Becquerel, who was examining why certain matter glows in the dark. He noticed that uranium — one of the chemical elements we now know to be highly radioactive — changed the colour of light-sensitive sheets, even when there was a paper layer between the sheets and the elements. He realised that this material must have been emitting something he could not see with his eyes.
Curie’s particular contribution was to discover polonium and radium and to name the process ‘radioactivity’, something caused by the breakdown of particular atoms. Curie's legacy was to put Becquerel’s discovery to use for the purpose of fighting cancer. As a chemist and physicist, she became the first — and still the only — person to win the Nobel Prize in two sciences.
The Pros and Cons of Chemistry
The Macquarie online dictionary definition of chemistry is: the science concerned with the composition of substances, the various elementary forms of matter, and the interactions between them.
With this definition in mind, when we look back in history (and despite the feeling that chemistry is a modern day science), we see that the earliest recorded consideration of substances was by Greek philosophers, such as Empedocles, as early as 600BCE. For century after century, metalsmiths, ceramists and dyers used their understanding of chemical process of perfect their craft. In the 4th century BCE, Aristotle started to consider the elements of matter. Then, there was the rise of alchemy (the forerunner of modern chemistry), in which alchemists would search for ways to manipulate the properties of matter to enable the production of more valuable substances.
So, while chemistry is, by no means, exclusively the realm of modern times, the significance of chemistry in drastically shaping modern human society and forming the lifestyle we lead today cannot be denied. In simplistic terms, the reason a proportion of human society is adequately clothed, able to access sufficient food and clean water, housed and healthy is due to chemistry inventions and discoveries by chemists.
Indeed, for a considerable part of the early to mid twentieth century, chemistry was seen as the science of the future. It was a time of abundance with relation to new discoveries, which led to advancements in medical understanding and technology, production of materials (such as plastic) to enhance day-to-day living and an ongoing source of alternative energy once the world's fossil fuels were depleted.
However, on the flip side and despite the potential of chemical products to enrich human society, in recent years, the negative impacts of 'chemistry' have started to come to the forefront of environmental understanding and long-term impacts. These include, but are not limited to three main players:
Production of harmful waste
By and far, the biggest concern when it comes to chemical energy and chemical by-products is waste disposal. Limited disposal sites have been unable to adequately cater for the amount of chemical waste produced, resulting in significant environmental and health issues. In modern times, in Chernobyl and Fukushima, we have seen the power and impact of chemistry when something goes wrong. It is not only the immediate impact on society that is a problem but the ongoing impact, which can last thousands of years. Essentially, we are looking at short-term benefits in exchange for long-term consequences.
Creation of chemical weaponry and warfare
The same chemical discoveries used to enhance and enrich the quality of life through chemical energy are also being simultaneously used to destroy life through the creation of devastating weapons, such as those used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the ongoing current nuclear threat from North Korea, among other countries. It is interesting, and incredibly scary, to note that the world would be completely destroyed in an instant should all the nuclear weapons in existence be fired at the same time.
Misuse of medical chemistry advancements
While the advancements in medicine and the prevention and treatment of disease and injury could not have occurred without chemistry, an unfortunate offshoot of this is the human tendency towards misuse. Along with the increase in medical solutions to long-term problems, the world has also seen an increase in the misuse of mood-altering drugs, creating a huge issue for society as a whole.
Negative impacts aside, the question is: do the consequences outweigh the benefits? Another that may be asked is: have we gone too far now to turn back? It is too late?
There is no simple answer, although it has been suggested that 'chemical problems require chemical solutions', meaning solutions that are acceptable for the environment and human wellbeing are only attainable with chemical knowledge. Such chemical understanding will lead to the discovery of new materials and substances to help future generations.
Or — is this what caused the current problems in the first place? As Janine Benyus points out:
Green chemistry is replacing our industrial chemistry with nature's recipe book. It's not easy, because life uses only a subset of the elements in the periodic table. And we use all of them, even the toxic ones.
It is certainly food for thought for current and future generations.
The Chemistry Industry in Australia
The chemistry industry is one of Australia's largest manufacturing and production sectors and plays a vital role in Australia's economy, from everyday food products and infrastructure to cutting edge inventions and innovative process.
Ways you can see the Australian chemistry industry at work include:
- food supply through increasing crop production and technology to reduce pest infestation
- provision of clean drinking water, free of impurities and bacteria
- advances in infrastructure with technology and materials for efficient construction and transport
- revolutionalising energy with sustainable technology
- improving medical treatments and public health.
To find out more about chemistry in Australia, whether you have a general interest in the subject or are looking to pursue a career in chemistry, the Royal Australian Chemical Institute is the recommended professional body for chemical sciences, providing a wealth of information on everything from courses to the latest discoveries.
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