Welcome to my third “Science Answers” post! About a month ago, I sent out a post requesting science questions from all of you; you can find it here. This post addresses the third of the questions I was asked. If you have a question, you can ask it in the comments here or on that post, or ask it in an email. Or find me on Facebook!
Q: What is the division between the physical and life sciences? For example, why do we think of rocks in a different category than we do plants and animals? (asked by Katherine)
Okay, wow. Another great question! This one is almost as fundamental as gravity, which I answered earlier.
Gravity may be pretty much the singular reason why the universe works the way it does, but the difference between the physical and life sciences is an important distinction when trying to understand the world around us.
So let’s start with what we know. When you hear “physical science,” what do you think of?
You might think of any number of things—but I’ll bet you that none of those things are alive in the traditional sense.
So, how about the biological sciences? What does that make you think of?
Maybe plants…or cute animals?
Whatever you think of, I’m going to guess they’re all alive.
But what makes something alive or not alive? What makes zebras leap and run, whereas rocks are forever immobile? What makes these living beings different from a vast galaxy or the Pillars of Creation?
It might, or it might not. If it does, you might recognize it as the periodic table of the elements—more often known as simply the “periodic table.” It’s an ingenious way to organize elements that has worked for scientists for quite some time.
To fully appreciate the ingenuity of the periodic table, I’d have to take you through a few chemistry lessons. Never fear, I have every intention of doing so—later. For now, though, I just want to address enough of the world of atoms to talk about stellar spectra.
That just means the spectrums we get from stars, by the way. (Spectra is plural for spectrum.) And that means…well…we’ll talk about it later. Let’s talk about the different types of atoms first.
This is the periodic table, and it’s pretty much the most important table in all of chemistry.
All the little boxes on this “table” are elements, the simplest form of matter. You literally can’t break these down further. What’s the difference between an element and a substance, you ask?
Okay, well, think of it this way. In my post on matter and its forms, I used water as an example of a substance. Water has its own physical and chemical properties, it’s not a mixture of anything, and no matter how many times you divide it up, you’ll still have the same thing.
But water can be divided up into different things chemically.
The simplest approach to chemistry is to start basic.
Not basic as in acids and bases, ha-ha…sorry, bad chemistry joke.
I mean basic as in, what the heck even is chemistry?
I admit that I’m better versed in astronomy than chemistry. I’ve studied chemistry for exactly one year of my life—last year, 12th grade. Astronomy, on the other hand, has been my strong suit and my passion for several years.
For me, these Wednesday posts are like a refresher course. I don’t actually remember everything I’ve learned. Good thing I bought a copy of the textbook.
So, I’ll start simple—because chemistry is the study of breaking complex things down to the simplest bits possible. It’s the opposite of astronomy. Astronomy studies huge, mind-blowing phenomena. Chemistry, on the other hand…is mind-blowingly small.