Comparison of chemistry and physics

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Marie Curie is the only individual to be awarded Nobel Prizes in both chemistry and physics

Chemistry and physics are branches of science that both study the behavior of matter. The difference between the two lies in their scope and approach. Chemistry focuses on describing matter by its intrinsic behavior within itself as an entity, or the systems that compose matter. Physics focuses on describing matter by its extrinsic behavior in systems with other entities of matter, or the systems that matter behaves in. Chemists and physicists are trained differently, and they have different professional roles, even when working in a team. The division between chemistry and physics melds at their interface where the extrinsic and intrinsic systems of matter combine, notably in such fields as physical chemistry, chemical physics, quantum mechanics, nuclear physics/chemistry, materials science, spectroscopy, solid state physics, solid-state chemistry, crystallography, and nanotechnology.


Physics and chemistry may overlap when the system under study involves matter composed of electrons and nuclei made of protons and neutrons. On the other hand, chemistry is not concerned with other forms of matter such as quarks, mu and tau leptons and dark matter.

Although fundamental laws that govern the behavior of matter apply both in chemistry and physics, the disciplines of physics and chemistry are distinct. Physics is concerned with nature from a very large scale (the entire universe) down to a very small scale (subatomic particles). All physical phenomena that are measurable follow some behavior that is in accordance with the most basic principles studied in physics.[1][2]

Physics is involved with the fundamental principles of physical phenomena and the basic forces of nature, and also gives insight into the aspects of space and time. Physics also deals with the basic principles that explain matter and energy, and may study aspects of atomic matter by following concepts derived from the most fundamental principles.

Chemistry focuses on how substances interact with each other and with energy (for example heat and light).[3][4] The study of change of matter (chemical reactions) and synthesis lies at the heart of chemistry, and gives rise to concepts such as organic functional groups and rate laws for chemical reactions. Chemistry also studies the properties of matter at a larger scale (for example, astrochemistry) and the reactions of matter at a larger scale (for example, technical chemistry), but typically, explanations and predictions are related back to the underlying atomic structure, giving more emphasis on the methods for the identification of molecules and their mechanisms of transformation than any other science.


Physics and chemistry both describe behavior of matter and its interaction with energy, but the two disciplines differ in their approach. In physics, it is typical to generalize matter to describe in detail and various scenarios the common properties of many different materials.[5][6] In optics for example, materials are described by their index of refraction which we may use to conclude, for instance, that materials with the same index of refraction have identical properties per our description. Chemistry, on the other hand, may describe the chemical composition of the sample to explore how change in the structure of molecules affects reactivity and their physical properties.[7]

The two sciences differ in the role that theory plays within the discipline. Physics can be divided into experimental and theoretical physics. Historically, theoretical physics has correctly predicted phenomena that were out of experimental reach at the time, and could be verified only after experimental techniques caught up.[8] In chemistry, the role of theory historically has been a retrospective one, summarizing experimental data and predicting the outcome of similar experiments.[9] However, with the increasing power of computational methods in chemistry, it has become possible to predict whether a hypothetical compound is stable or not before experimental data is available.


In a typical undergraduate program for physics majors, required courses are in the sub-disciplines of physics, with additional required courses in mathematics. Because much of the insight of physics is described by differential equations relating matter, space, and time (for example Newton's law of motion and the Maxwell equations of electromagnetism), students have to be familiar with differential equations. In a typical undergraduate program for chemistry majors, emphasis is placed on laboratory classes and understanding and applying models describing chemical bonds and molecular structure. Emphasis is also placed in the methods for analysis and the formulas and equations used when considering the chemical transformation. Students take courses in math, physics, chemistry, and often biochemistry. Between the two programs of study, there is a large area of overlap (calculus, introductory physics, quantum mechanics, thermodynamics). However, physics places a larger emphasis on fundamental theory (with its deep mathematical treatment) while chemistry places more emphasis in combining the most important mathematical definitions of the theory with the approach of the molecular models. Laboratory skills may differ in both programs, as students may be involved in different technologies, depending on the program and the institution of higher education (for example, a chemistry student may spend more laboratory time dealing with glassware for distillation and purification or on a form of chromatography-spectroscopy instrument, while a physics student may spend much more time dealing with a laser and non-linear optics technology or some complex electrical circuit).

Careers in chemistry and physics[edit]

According to Bureau of Labor Statistics (United States Department of Labor), there are 80,000 chemists and 17,000 physicists working in the United States as of May 2010.[10] In addition, 21,000 chemists and 13,500 physicists teach in high school. Chemistry is the only science that has an entire industry, the chemical industry, named after it, and many chemists work in this industry, in research and development, production, training, or management. Other industries employing chemists include the petroleum, pharmaceutical, and food industry. While there is no industry named after physics, many industries have grown out of physics research, most notably the semiconductor and electronics industry. Physicists are also employed outside of science, for example in finance, because of their training in modeling complex systems.[11]

Topics at the interface of chemistry and physics[edit]

Chemistry and physics are not strictly separated sciences, and chemists and physicists work in interdisciplinary teams to explore the following topics.


  1. ^ "American Physical Society". 
  2. ^ "Institute of Physics". 
  3. ^ "International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry". 
  4. ^ "American Chemical Society". 
  5. ^ Braid, Donald (2006). ""Doing good physics": Narrative and innovation in research". JOURNAL OF FOLKLORE RESEARCH. 43 (2): 149–. doi:10.1353/jfr.2006.0012. 
  6. ^ Manogue, Corinne A.; Cerny, L; Gire, E; Mountcastle, DB; Price, E; van Zee, EH (2010). "Upper-Division Activities That Foster "Thinking Like A Physicist"". 2010 PHYSICS EDUCATION RESEARCH CONFERENCE. AIP Conference Proceedings. 1289. doi:10.1063/1.3515242. 
  7. ^ Bensaude-Vincent, Bernadette (Dec 2009). "The Chemists' Style of Thinking". BERICHTE ZUR WISSENSCHAFTSGESCHICHTE. 32 (4): 365–378. doi:10.1002/bewi.200901385. 
  8. ^ Lanczos, Cornelius (1959). "ALBERT EINSTEIN AND THE ROLE OF THEORY IN CONTEMPORARY PHYSICS". American Scientist. 47 (1). JSTOR 27827245. 
  9. ^ Hoffmann, Roald (1974). "Theory in Chemistry" (PDF). Chem. Eng. News. 52 (30): 19–38. doi:10.1021/cen-v052n030.p019. Retrieved 30 July 2015. 
  10. ^ "Bureau of Labor Statistics". United States Department of Labor. 
  11. ^ "Careers outside of science". Institute of Physics. Retrieved 3 November 2011.