What does a chemical do? Addressing misconceptions about chemistry



When I introduce myself as a PhD student in chemistry, I can often spot fear and incomprehension in people’s eyes: chemists are often pictured as crazy scientists, like Dr. Maru in Wonder Woman, doing black magic and explosions. It appears that most of the public fears are based on misunderstandings of the science.

And so I’d like to address five of the most common misconceptions about chemistry, and hopefully explain how chemistry contributes to everyday life.

The word chemical can be considered a synonym of matter; a chemical is anything that has mass. This includes everyday substances like water, caffeine and sugar. Elements featured on the periodic table are chemicals, and so are small molecules like caffeine, large molecules such as deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and almost-infinite chains called polymers, such as plastics.

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