History of chemistry

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The history of chemistry may be said to begin with the distinction of chemistry from alchemy by Robert Boyle in his work The Skeptical Chymist (1661), but is often more strictly dated to Antoine Lavoisier's discovery of the law of conservation of mass, and thereby to his refutation of the phlogiston theory of combustion in 1783.

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The vitalism debate and organic chemistry

After the nature of combustion (see oxygen) was settled, another dispute, about vitalism and the essential distinction between organic and inorganic substances, was revolutionized by Friedrich W?r's (accidental) synthesis of urea from inorganic substances in 1828. Never before had an organic compound been synthesized from inorganic material. This opened a new research field in chemistry, and by the end of the 19th century, scientists were able to synthesize hundreds of organic compounds. The most important among them are mauve, magenta, and other synthetic dyes, as well as the widely used drug aspirin. The discovery also contributed greatly to the theory of isomerism.

The dispute about atomism

Throughout the 19th century, chemistry was divided between those who followed the atomic theory of John Dalton and those who did not, such as Wilhelm Ostwald and Ernst Mach. Although such proponents of the atomic theory as Amedeo Avogadro and Ludwig Boltzmann made great advances in explaining the behavior of gases, this dispute was not finally settled until Jean Perrin's experimental investigation of Einstein's atomic explanation of Brownian motion in the first decade of the 20th century.

Well before the dispute had been settled, Svante Arrhenius had begun to investigate the internal structure of atoms with his theory of ionization. This was carried much further by Ernest Rutherford, who established the study of the substructure of the atom as a branch of physics, but was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry, not physics, for his work.

The periodic table

Main article: History of the periodic table

For many decades, the list of known chemical elements had been steadily increasing. A great breakthrough in making sense of this long list (as well as, eventually, in understanding the internal structure of atoms as discussed above) was Dmitri Mendeleev and Lothar Meyer's development of the periodic table, and, most impressively, Mendeleev's use of it to predict the existence and the properties of germanium, gallium, and scandium, which Mendeleev called ekasilicon, ekaaluminium, and ekaboron respectively. Mendeleev made his prediction in 1870; gallium was discovered in 1875, and was found to have roughly the same properties that Mendeleev predicted for it.

Industrial exploitation

The later part of the nineteenth century saw the exploitation of the petrochemicals of the earth, after the exhaustion of the oil supply from whaling in the previous centuries. Systematic production of refined materials provided a ready supply of products which not only provided energy, but also synthetic materials for clothing, medicine, and everyday disposable resources, by the twentieth century.

Physical chemistry

In the 1920s, Rutherford's studies of the internal structure of atoms, Moseley's attendant systematic explanation of the patterns in the periodic table, and the new theory of quantum mechanics coalesced to produce a fusion in theory between atomic and subatomic physics on the one hand, and chemistry on the other (although in practice they remained distinct disciplines, as they still do). A young American chemist, Linus Pauling, traveled to study in Europe in the 1920s with the ambition of explaining the molecular bonds between atoms in quantum-mechanical terms. In 1939, Pauling accomplished his ambition by publishing the seminal textbook The Nature of the Molecular Bond. For his work leading up to this achievement, Pauling was awarded the first of his two Nobel prizes.

As with atomic physics, so with subatomic physics. Marie and Pierre Curie also worked on the boundary between chemistry and physics, using purely chemical techniques to isolate the element radium so that they could study its peculiar physical properties. This experimental work of the Curies, which was done at the turn of the century and contemporaneously with Max Planck's early work on the photon and Einstein's early papers, contributed as much to the eventual development of the new subatomic physics as did Rutherford's work.

By the twentieth century, the integration of physics and chemistry was complete, with chemical properties explained as the result of the electronic structure of the atom; Linus Pauling's book on The Nature of the Chemical Bond used the principles of quantum mechanics to deduce bond angles in ever-more complicated molecules, culminating in the physical modelling of the DNA molecule, in essence, the secret of life, in the words of Francis Crick. The co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, James Watson, was to treasure a gift from Crick, a copy of Pauling's book. Watson and Crick deduced the structure of DNA by physical modelling. Their helical structure was simultaneously confirmed by Rosalind Franklin's x-ray crystallography at William Bragg's laboratory in Cambridge. Pauling was very close to discovery as well; his hypothetical structure a triple helix rather than the double helix of DNA. In the same year, the Miller-Urey experiment demonstrated that basic constituents of protein, simple amino acids, could themselves be built up from simpler molecules in a simulation of primordial processes on Earth.

Semiconductor processing

In the mid-twentieth century, control of the electronic structure of semiconductor materials was made precise by the creation of single-crystal circuits. Advances in processing technology, like that utilized in other parts of the materials industry, coupled with the advance of optical and x-ray sources, made possible the miniaturization of electrical circuits, culminating in the integrated circuits of the twentieth century. In this way computer program logic could be realized and mechanized for computation and control.

See also

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