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First year undergrad - will chemistry be useful?

  1. Feb 15, 2013 #1
    I'm in my first year of university and will be taking a math, physics and an earth science course. I'm not sure which subject to choose for my 4th subject however, at the moment I'm thinking either a second language (French or German) or chemistry.

    Would first year chemistry be useful for a physics major? Are there things taught in chemistry that you won't learn in physics courses? Or can everything be explained in more advanced physics courses?

    Basically I would like to be as scientifically literate as possible and obviously learning more science won't hurt but there were aspects in high school chemistry that I didn't enjoy.

  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 15, 2013 #2
    Well I'm an astrophysics/ materials chemistry double major, and more advanced in my physics sequence than my chemistry sequence, but from what I have learned so far...and I might get some static for this...but I found that learning introductory chemistry before learning some aspects of quantum mechanics covered in upper level physics classes made it more difficult for me to relate quantum states and spin to orbitals as i learned in chemistry. This may be more of a "me" thing, but even when the connection is being explained, because there is such a difference in terminology, it is still like two completely different things to me.

    Still I think chemistry will be helpful if you will be taking solid state physics and statistical mechanics..particularly second year chemistry as it covers more geometry. First year chemistry also gives a good foundation for second year physics in the area of thermodynamics. My school requires first and second year chemistry for physics majors, and engineering majors are only required to take first year chemistry.
  4. Feb 16, 2013 #3
    Thanks for your input. If I take chemistry, it'll only be for first year, I intend to do take only physics and math courses in second and third.
  5. Feb 16, 2013 #4
    I would take basic chemistry later in your degree, as it will be a nice simple break from your more difficult physics courses, though you need to budget the time for the busy work that is 90% of your time dealing with chemistry labs. Further, after you have a foundation in basic physics and math I find that you will get much more out of the foundational chemistry course (as well as do much better in the course.) Basically I agree with HeLiXe, but I would extend it beyond just quantum. People may disagree but I feel the axiomatic ground-up progression of physics from very basic principles and the line of reasoning that follows basic physics is much better at getting you into the door of college level natural science than the first year chemistry course (I also think the physics undergrad is the absolute best way to enter the natural sciences just in general..)

    It is decently important and decently unique from what one does in physics. The whole course is what chemical reactions can happen, how fast they happen, and to what extent (there's also nuance topics such as the nature of these things we're using called "atoms", nuances of electrochemistry towards the end of the course, etc.) I'd say it's less useful for a career in physics as it is for a general broadening of one's understanding of the natural sciences, but still it does crop up every once in a while. The language chemists use to describe some of the same things in physics is sometimes a little different, so it's an additional background that can be useful in that regard. Also you get to see physics material in a slightly different context which can be useful for further practice with similar material. You may also be glad you have this general science background when you're writing lab reports and proposals on why your carbon nanotube project could have applications in the field of chemistry, etc.

    As far as the overlaps with physics, later in statistical mechanics you'll talk about things like the Gibbs free energy which is used in chemistry on the topic of what reactions can happen. How fast the reactions happen is a simple differential equation, and to what extent reactions happen (how much reactants become products, this is a question that can be asked when there is dynamic equilibrium due to a mechanism that converts products back into reactants as in many common reactions) utilizes a law called the "law of mass action" that if you're lucky you might see derived in statistical mechanics. Oh, and of course the nuance topics like the nature of the atom, that's obviously a huge overlap with quantum mechanics, though I didn't like this part of the chemistry course :/ Pedagogically unsavory to say the least. Better to attack this from a physics stand point. Topics like "Why does the electron not collapse into the proton?" is better answered in physics with an better understanding of the Heinsenberg uncertainty principle, "What were the failures of the classical model of the atoms?" are better answerable in electrodynamics and quantum mechanics proper, "Why don't we fall through the floor?" is better answerable with a better understanding of the Pauli exclusion principle (again, would prefer a proper quantum mechanics course), and another related question is "Why do we have a periodic table (where the varying functionalities has to do with the outer shell structures of the electrons in the various atoms)? Why doesn't all atoms just have protons at the center and electrons an equal distance away, all occupying the same spherical shell distance from the center?" (here the answer is again the Pauli exclusion principle), why don't the protons fly apart, I mean it's a deluge of questions. If you're happy with no answers, half answers, and bad explanations, then by all means dive right into general chemistry first year.

    Chemistry is kind of like applied physics, and they have to work hard to make the course self contained.
    Last edited: Feb 16, 2013
  6. Feb 16, 2013 #5
    Wow, thanks very much for the in-depth reply, dydxforsn.

    The main reason why I'm thinking of taking chemistry this year is because I need to fill a free fourth subject and there aren't any other math or physics courses I can take. I originally decided to do one of the languages as I though it might come in handy later down the track (plus I would get to meet students from outside the science department) but then I wondered whether I should do chemistry because that would be sticking to my strengths (and also like you said, broaden my understanding of the natural sciences).

    Did you find first year chemistry useful in understanding 'everyday' things?
    If that's a vague question, I mean, for example, after a course in physics, you're able to explain why orbiting satellites don't just crash into the Earth or how people don't fall through those floorless, spinning amusement rides or how straws work...etc. Just interesting or seemingly trivial things...
  7. Feb 16, 2013 #6
    You're welcome
    Just wanted to reiterate that what dydxforsn is saying about the labs is not just an exaggeration. Labs in general can be time consuming, but the chemistry labs I have had thus far require much more busy work than physics labs.
  8. Feb 16, 2013 #7
    I would just take some kind of a basic, chemistry isn't really a course that provides the foundation for anything in physics so there's not really a reason to get to it early. It's not getting you into some sequence early so that you can then take a multitude of advanced courses as a result (unlike basic Phys 1&2 or anything math related), and it's not helping you even get a heads up on other students in physics because you got that diverse background earlier (imo). My only caution is that you just remember there is the very time consuming lab that you don't want to crowd out some of your more difficult courses later in your undergraduate career (and definitely don't schedule it during any advanced physics labs you might have to take..) I would take it after your first year of physics but before or during modern physics/quantum/statistical mechanics and before you take an advanced physics laboratory class (so probably sophomore year).

    heh, well, I do use the knowledge I gained to understand everyday things, but it's narrower in scope than your basic physics course and thus less important than my basic physics course in everyday understandings and insight (chemistry could be considered a subfield of physics - it's all semantics anyway, nature doesn't care what you call or how you group things, but I would indeed consider it a subfield of physics..) That being said I use it often enough in everyday life. It did help me to realize that phosphoric acid in sodas like Coke and Dr. Pepper is to calcium in your teeth and bones what magnets are to iron fillings >_< If your everyday life was often spent in an arbitrary lab setting, it would be one of the more useful courses you took in college. I'm glad I took it.

    I don't really like this answer to the question you posed, I could do better :/ I don't want to have to give another long-winded reply though >_< (not because I'm looking our for your attention span but because I just don't want to do it heh, this is an essay response question..)

    heh, yeah it's insane, I also experienced the strange feeling that chemistry labs involved much more just.... basic busy work than labs in physics. Also I think at one point in our chemistry labs we were on like titration number 5 (as in 5 completely different labs involving titration, not 5 different measurements..) The inflation of importance of the lab notebook is also ridiculous, the time spent on that waste rivaled all time I spent in lecture and studying material for the course. And then the greatest injustice and crime of the 21st century - lab was worth only 1 credit hour... I don't ever leave my friends in chemistry and biology alone about the fact that after basic physics and chemistry we only had to take one year long course for lab in the form of advanced physics lab at my university :D A reason to do physics indeed! heheh
  9. Feb 16, 2013 #8
    OMG sounds like Chem II

    I really have to agree here

    literal LOL :rofl:

    GAH! You are fortunate. A lot of my physics classes have labs and I have sentenced myself to upper level chemistry labs -_- pity me not! I just wish lower level chemistry labs could be done at will prior to taking upper level classes. I would section them off for the summer and just get them out of my system in one overload.
  10. Feb 17, 2013 #9
    Five labs on titration?? Damn! Are titrations in university any different from high school titration? Cause I quite enjoyed that when I was doing it alone...I remember I got some very nice results.

    Well, I've decided to just go with chemistry cause I'm nuts, haha :p (also, I didn't really want to miss one physics lecture a week due to the clash with German). I have 3 hours of chem labs a week which brings the total hours of practicals to 7 (all on different days though)

    Labs in uni sound crazy intense...I'm not looking forward to those write-ups. I hope I get a good lab partner, having a 'bad' partner sucks whatever fun there is in practicals. Though I do enjoy working alone...in fact, I worked much more efficiently in high school alone than with someone else (that was probably cause I was always paired up with people who didn't take it seriously)
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