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Chemistry and Physics

Protein foldingWhere is the line between chemistry and physics, and how do they overlap? Read on to find out.


These days, our knowledge and technology blur the line between chemistry and physics. We understand many of the molecular structures and forces that cause chemical reactions to take place, and have even taken pictures of individual molecules.

Meanwhile, the most talked about problems in modern physics are to do with even smaller structures, and the search for the fundamental particles that make up the universe.

But in the past, the difference was clearer. For a long time, physics was concerned with much bigger, more familiar things like the laws of motion or electromagnetic waves, while before 1858 no chemist had identified how atoms linked together to form molecules.

But as physicists turned their attention to the building blocks of matter, the overlap between the two fields became more important. Chemical reactions were one of the few ways that physicists could observe how very small particles behave, while developments in physics, such as spectroscopy, provided a better understanding of chemical structures.

Chemistry and physics today

Although it’s important for chemists to understand some physics, and vice-versa, there are also some areas where the crossover is particularly important. For example, nanotechnology – the engineering of molecule-sized machines – uses the principles of both subjects. Other crossovers include the study of protein folding, which examines the way large protein molecules form the 3D shapes which make them useful – a field of study which brings biology in, too.

Studying chemistry and physics together

Although most degrees will focus on either physics or chemistry, there are a few ways to study both. Some universities offer “joint honours” degrees which will allow you to study both subjects, for example. You might also be able to take a module on one while studying the other, or take a module on physical chemistry. Finally, there is also the option of studying a postgraduate degree in physical chemistry if you want to specialise in this area.

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