Chemistry's Impact on the Modern World

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  • 0:01 Background on Chemistry
  • 1:05 Plastics & Artificial Products
  • 1:56 Medicines
  • 2:37 Fertilizers
  • 4:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

Discover how chemistry has completely changed the modern world, from plastics to fertilizers to antibiotics. See how much your knowledge has changed by taking a quiz.

Background on Chemistry

Chemicals are everywhere. They're all around you. You're sitting on chemicals, breathing in chemicals, eating chemicals, and sleeping with chemicals. And no, you don't need to run away screaming: the natural world is made of chemicals, too. And chemistry is our study of those substances. Chemistry is the study of the atoms, molecules, and mixtures which make up the matter in the universe, including the ways they change, combine, and interact to form new ones.

While plants and animals are made of chemicals, the biggest impacts of chemistry on the world are where we've used our understanding of chemicals to make new, artificial ones. There's a modern feeling that artificial chemicals are bad, but that isn't completely true. Artificial chemicals have saved billions of lives, increased human productivity, and completely changed the way we live. Although chemistry has impacted the modern world in ways too many to count, today we're going to talk about a handful of the biggest areas in which chemistry has impacted the world.

Plastics & Artificial Products

Today, 80 million tons of polythene, also called polyethylene, is made every year. And it all started with an accidental discovery by a German chemist, Hans von Pechmann, in the late 1890s. He happened to notice a waxy substance at the bottom of his test tubes. He found that they were made up of gigantic chains of molecules. Those chains are called polymers.

This material was the first plastic, and would lead to today's world where we're surrounded by them. Everything from childhood toys to plastic bags, hard hats, nylon products, and shower curtains. We're surrounded by artificial products, and most of them are polymers of some kind. Plastics can be highly durable, lightweight, cheap to make, and easy to clean. They've turned our homes to all kinds of bright colors and it's hard to imagine modern life without them.


Probably the most important impact of chemistry on the world is medicine, and the most important of these historically was penicillin, accidentally discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928. Even if you've never taken penicillin in your life, you've probably taken an antibiotic of some kind, and the isolation and development of penicillin beginning in 1939 was the chemistry experiment that started it all.

Before antibiotics, human life expectancy seemed pretty static at around 50 years. That means life expectancy has increased by 30 years in a period of 50 years. This is an incredibly dramatic change, and it's in large part through the use of antibiotics and other medicines.

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