Unit 1 – Some Basic Concepts Of Chemistry

Science can be viewed as a continuing human effort to systematize knowledge for describing and understanding nature.

Curd formation from milk, formation of vinegar from sugarcane juice on keeping for prolonged time and rusting of iron are some of the examples of changes which we come across many times. For the sake of convenience, science is sub-divided into various disciplines: chemistry, physics, biology, geology, etc.

The branch of science that studies the preparation, properties, structure and reactions of material substances is called chemistry.



Chemistry, as we understand it today, is not a very old discipline.

Chemistry was not studied for its own sake, rather it came up as a result of search for two interesting things:

  1. Philosopher’s stone (Paras) which would convert all baser metals e.g., iron and copper into gold.
  2. ‘Elexir of life’ which would grant immortality.

People in ancient India, already had the knowledge of many scientific phenomenon much before the advent of modern science. They applied that knowledge in various walks of life. Chemistry developed mainly in the form of Alchemy and Iatrochemistry during 1300-1600 CE.

Modern chemistry took shape in the 18th century Europe, after a few centuries of alchemical traditions which were introduced in Europe by the Arabs.Other cultures – especially the Chinese and the Indian – had their own alchemical traditions. These included much knowledge of chemical processes and techniques.

In ancient India, chemistry was called Rasayan Shastra, Rastantra, Ras Kriya or Rasvidya. It included metallurgy, medicine, manufacture of cosmetics, glass, dyes, etc. Systematic excavations at Mohenjodaro in Sindh and Harappa in Punjab prove that the story of development of chemistry in India is very old. Archaeological findings show that baked bricks were used in construction work.

It shows the mass production of pottery, which can be regarded as the earliest chemical process, in which materials were mixed, moulded and subjected to heat by using fire to achieve desirable qualities. Remains of glazed pottery have been found in Mohenjodaro. Gypsum cement has been used in the construction work. It contains lime, sand and traces of CaCO3. Harappans made faience, a sort of glass which was used in ornaments.

They melted and forged a variety of objects from metals, such as lead, silver, gold and copper. They improved the hardness of copper for making artefacts by using tin and arsenic. A number of glass objects were found in Maski in South India (1000–900 BCE), and Hastinapur and Taxila in North India (1000–200 BCE). Glass and glazes were coloured by addition of colouring agents like metal oxides.

Copper metallurgy in India dates back to the beginning of chalcolithic cultures in the subcontinent. There are much archeological evidences to support the view that technologies for extraction of copper and iron were developed indigenously.

According to Rigveda, tanning of leather and dying of cotton were practised during 1000–400 BCE. The golden gloss of the black polished ware of northen India could not be replicated and is still a chemical mystery.

These wares indicate the mastery with which kiln temperatures could be controlled. Kautilya’sArthashastra describes the production of salt from sea.

A vast number of statements and material described in the ancient Vedic literature can be shown to agree with modern scientific findings. Copper utensils, iron, gold, silver ornaments and terracotta discs and painted grey pottery have been found in many archaeological sites in north India. Sushruta Samhita explains the importance of Alkalies.

The Charaka Samhita mentions ancient indians who knew how to prepare sulphuric acid, nitric acid and oxides of copper, tin and zinc; the sulphates of copper, zinc and iron and the carbonates of lead and iron.

Rasopanishada describes the preparation of gunpowder mixture. Tamil texts also describe the preparation of fireworks using sulphur, charcoal, saltpetre (i.e., potassium nitrate), mercury, camphor, etc.

Nagarjuna was a great Indian scientist. He was a reputed chemist, an alchemist and a metallurgist. His work Rasratnakar deals with the formulation of mercury compounds. He has also discussed methods for the extraction of metals, like gold, silver, tin and copper. A book, Rsarnavam, appeared around 800 CE.

It discusses the uses of various furnaces, ovens and crucibles for different purposes. It describes methods by which metals could be identified by flame colour.

Chakrapani discovered mercury sulphide. The credit for inventing soap also goes to him. He used mustard oil and some alkalies as ingredients for making soap. Indians began making soaps in the 18th century CE. Oil of Eranda and seeds of Mahua plant and calcium carbonate were used for making soap.

The paintings found on the walls of Ajanta and Ellora, which look fresh even after ages, testify to a high level of science achieved in ancient India. Varähmihir’sBrihat Samhita is a sort of encyclopaedia, which was composed in the sixth century CE.

It informs about the preparation of glutinous material to be applied on walls and roofs of houses and temples. It was prepared entirely from extracts of various plants, fruits, seeds and barks, which were concentrated by boiling, and then, treated with various resins. It will be interesting to test such materials scientifically and assess them for use.

A number of classical texts, like Atharvaveda (1000 BCE) mention some dye stuff, the material used were turmeric, madder, sunflower, orpiment, cochineal and lac. Some other substances having tinting property were kamplcica, pattanga and jatuka.

Varähmihir’sBrihat Samhita gives references to perfumes and cosmetics. Recipes for hair dying were made from plants, like indigo and minerals like iron power, black iron or steel and acidic extracts of sour rice gruel. Gandhayukli describes recipes for making scents, mouth perfumes, bath powders, incense and talcum power.

Paper was known to India in the 17th century as account of Chinese traveller I-tsing describes. Excavations at Taxila indicate that ink was used in India from the fourth century. Colours of ink were made from chalk, red lead and minimum.

It seems that the process of fermentation was well-known to Indians. Vedas and Kautilya’sArthashastra mention about many types of liquors. Charaka Samhita also mentions ingredients, such as barks of plants, stem, flowers, leaves, woods, cereals, fruits and sugarcane for making Asavas.

The concept that matter is ultimately made of indivisible building blocks, appeared in India a few centuries BCE as a part of philosophical speculations. Acharya Kanda, born in 600 BCE, originally known by the name Kashyap, was the first proponent of the ‘atomic theory’.

He formulated the theory of very small indivisible particles, which he named ‘Paramãnu’ (comparable to atoms). He authored the text Vaiseshika Sutras. According to him, all substances are aggregated form of smaller units called atoms (Paramãnu), which are eternal, indestructible, spherical, suprasensible and in motion in the original state. He explained that this individual entity cannot be sensed through any human organ.

Kanda added that there are varieties of atoms that are as different as the different classes of substances. He said these (Paramãnu) could form pairs or triplets, among other combinations and unseen forces cause interaction between them. He conceptualised this theory around 2500 years before John Dalton (1766-1844).

Charaka Samhita is the oldest Ayurvedic epic of India. It describes the treatment of diseases. The concept of reduction of particle size of metals is clearly discussed in Charaka Samhita. Extreme reduction of particle size is termed as nanotechnology. Charaka Samhita describes the use of bhasma of metals in the treatment of ailments. Now-a-days, it has been proved that bhasmas have nanoparticles of metals.

After the decline of alchemy, Iatrochemistry reached a steady state, but it too declined due to the introduction and practise of western medicinal system in the 20th century.

During this period of stagnation, pharmaceutical industry based on Ayurveda continued to exist, but it too declined gradually. It took about 100-150 years for Indians to learn and adopt new techniques. During this time, foreign products poured in.

As a result, indigenous traditional techniques gradually declined. Modern science appeared in Indian scene in the later part of the nineteenth century. By the mid-nineteenth century, European scientists started coming to India and modern chemistry started growing.

From the above discussion, you have learnt that chemistry deals with the composition, structure, properties and interection of matter and is of much use to human beings in daily life. These aspects can be best described and understood in terms of basic constituents of matter that are atoms and molecules.

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