Chemistry is called the central science because it connects the other sciences. Mastery of the other sciences requires that you understand chemical principles. But, is it really the central science? Let’s take a look…
Origin of the Statement That Chemistry Is the Central Science
In 1977, Theodore L. Brown and H. Eugene LeMay published a general chemistry textbook entitled Chemistry: The Central Science. The textbook gained popularity and is up to its 14th edition (published in 2017). The premise of the title is that chemistry connects the physical, biological, and applied sciences. For example, you can’t really understand the workings of DNA in biology unless you grasp the concepts of molecules and chemical bonds. Similarly, the composition and behavior of the atom is essential to understanding nuclear physics, astronomy, geology, computer science, medicine, and chemical engineering.
An Alternative Meaning of “Central Science”
French philosopher August Comte (1798-1857) developed a hierarchical classification organizing the sciences into a general framework. His diagram orders the sciences as:
logic → math → astronomy → physics → chemistry → biology → social sciences
Comte’s ordering was the first modern philosophical organization of the sciences, but modern philosophers have refined and revised the hierarchy. Some believe “central” refers to the science with the most branch points. Under this definition, chemistry is the central science because it branches into so many other disciplines. For example, branches of chemistry include biochemistry, inorganic, organic, analytical, physical, and nuclear chemistry. Of course, science is always evolving. Based solely on branching, you could argue that biology is central, even though physics and much of chemistry don’t rely on it.
Is Physics the Central Science?
What would have happened if there had been a popular text called Physics: The Central Science? Most likely, students would be asked to explain why physics is the central science, rather than getting the question concerning chemistry.
After all, physics and chemistry are closely intertwined. Together with astronomy and geology, they form the physical sciences. You can even define them the same way as the study of matter and energy and the relationships between them. Understanding chemistry requires a basic grasp of physics. Meanwhile, you don’t really encounter chemistry in a general physics text until you start studying nuclear reactions. Perhaps physics is the true central science.
What About Math?
Math is not the central science because mathematics is not a science. Science relies upon the scientific method, where you formulate and test a hypothesis. A supported hypothesis is never actually proven, since a single contrary result can disprove it. Meanwhile, math depends on logic and proof. All sciences use math as a tool, so it’s definitely central. But, it’s not a central science.
- Brown,Theodore L.; LeMay, H. Eugene (1977). Chemistry: The Central Science. Prentice Hall. ISBN 0-13-128769-9.
- Livesay, Dennis R. (2007). “At the crossroads of biomacromolecular research: highlighting the interdisciplinary nature of the field.” Chemistry Central Journal. 1, 4. doi:10.1186/1752-153X-1-4
- Lobb, S. (1871). A Brief View Of Positivism, Compiled from the Works of Auguste Comte. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink and Co.
- Scerri, Eric (2003). “Philosophy of Chemistry.” Chemistry International. 25(3).