Is Physical Chemistry Hard? Discover the Truth Here

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If you are considering taking physical chemistry or already knee-deep in this subject, chances are you have asked yourself the question: Is Physical Chemistry Hard? Understandably so, as this particular field involves complex concepts that merge traditional physics and chemistry to create a comprehensive understanding of matter.

While it’s true that physical chemistry can be challenging due to its abstract nature, fear not, as we’re here to clear things up for you!

In this article, we will take a closer look at what makes physical chemistry difficult, why it is essential to study, and how you can excel in this subject. We’ll explore topics such as thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, and chemical kinetics, giving you an overview of what to expect from some of the most significant sub-disciplines of physical chemistry.

“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” -Albert Einstein

You may find that learning physical chemistry takes persistence, discipline, and patience- but don’t worry, many successful chemists and physicists have gone through it too! With dedication and the right mindset, you’ll soon realize that studying physical chemistry isn’t hard; it’s just a challenge worth conquering. Let’s delve into more details on how to grasp this demanding subject matter.

What is Physical Chemistry?

Physical chemistry is a branch of chemistry that deals with the study of physical aspects and behavior of matter on a molecular and atomic level. It involves the study of fundamental principles related to energy, mass, force, and kinetic properties of chemical systems.

Definition of Physical Chemistry

The term ‘physical chemistry’ was first brought into academic use in 1887 by Dutch chemist Jacobus Henricus van ‘t Hoff, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work in this field. In simple words, physical chemistry can be defined as the application of theories and concepts derived from physics to understand and explain the behavior of molecules and atoms.

It often overlaps with other areas of chemistry, such as analytical chemistry and organic chemistry, to develop theoretical models based on empirical data, which help predict the properties and behavior of atoms and molecules under different conditions.

Applications of Physical Chemistry

Physical chemistry has a wide range of applications in various fields, including material science, chemical engineering, biotechnology, environmental science, medicine, and pharmaceuticals. Some of the major applications are:

  • Nanotechnology: Physical chemistry plays a significant role in developing new materials at the nanoscale, where small changes in structure or composition can result in large effects on their properties and behavior. This knowledge helps in designing advanced sensors, drug delivery systems, and electronic devices.
  • Battery technology: The development of next-generation batteries for electric vehicles and portable electronics relies heavily on physical chemistry principles related to charge transfer, electrode reactions, and electrolyte performance. Scientists use these principles to design and optimize battery materials and improve their capacity, lifespan, and safety.
  • Catalysis: Catalysis is the process of accelerating a chemical reaction by using a catalyst. Physical chemistry helps in understanding how catalysts work at the molecular level, which enables scientists to design highly effective and selective catalytic systems for industrial processes such as refineries, polymer synthesis, and drug development.
  • Biochemistry: Physical chemistry plays an essential role in unraveling the structure and function of biological macromolecules, such as proteins and enzymes. It involves techniques like X-ray crystallography, Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, and Circular Dichroism (CD), which help in determining the shape and conformational changes of these molecules under different conditions. Such knowledge is crucial for understanding their activity and designing drugs that can target them effectively.

Physical chemistry is not an easy subject, but it has tremendous scope for discovering new phenomena and solving complex problems that impact our lives. As Richard Feynman, physicist and Nobel Laureate said, “The most important thing is to keep the excitement of discovery alive.”

Why is Physical Chemistry Considered Hard?

Complex Mathematical Concepts

The use of complex mathematical concepts in physical chemistry makes it harder to understand. The study of thermodynamics, for instance, requires an understanding of calculus and differential equations which could be challenging for students who have not had previous experience with these concepts.

According to Professor David Clary from the University of Oxford, “Physical chemistry involves a lot of mathematics, and for many people that’s quite daunting. Many of the important phenomena we study require quite sophisticated mathematical treatments”.

Abstract Theories

Physical chemistry also involves abstract theories such as quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, and molecular orbital theory which can be hard to grasp. These theories are not directly observable, making them difficult to visualize and comprehend.

In the words of Nobel Prize-winning scientist Richard Feynman, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics”. This highlights just how elusive this particular subject matter can be, even for the most brilliant minds in science.

Interdisciplinary Nature

Physical chemistry is interdisciplinary, meaning it draws on principles from various fields such as physics, mathematics, and chemistry. This complexity can make it more challenging to learn as students must simultaneously master several different concepts.

“Because it is based both in physics and in chemistry there’s a certain amount of overlap where you need to know things about both,” says Dr. Geraldine Richmond from the University of Oregon. “That interplay poses some interesting challenges.”

Experimental Challenges

Physical chemistry relies heavily on experimental methods to explore and describe chemical systems. However, experiments are often costly and time-consuming to conduct, requiring specialized equipment and extensive technical knowledge.

“For many of the things we do, there isn’t an analytical solution that you can write on a piece of paper. You have to measure it experimentally,” says Professor Clary. “The experimental side is very important because without good experiments you don’t know whether your theory is right or not.”

Physical chemistry is undoubtedly hard. Nevertheless, the challenges posed by this unique field of study are what make it so fascinating.

What are the Basic Concepts of Physical Chemistry?

Physical chemistry deals with applied mathematics and physics to understand chemical behavior. A few basic concepts that one must grasp before venturing deeper into this field include thermodynamics, kinetics, and quantum mechanics.


One significant concept of physical chemistry is thermodynamics. It involves the study of energy transfer between systems, work done by/onto a system, temperature, entropy, and heat.

Thermodynamics can be divided into two parts- classical thermodynamics and statistical thermodynamics. While classical thermodynamics deals with macroscopic objects in equilibrium conditions, statistic thermodynamics focuses on molecular-level attributes of ensembles of particles.

“We live essentially in a universe which is completely deterministic, but appears probabilistic…” – Richard Feynman


The other important concept of physical chemistry is kinetics, which studies the rates of chemical reactions. By understanding reaction rates, scientists can learn how reactions proceed under different conditions and design catalysts to accelerate or decelerate reactions in industrial processes.

While studying kinetics, factors such as collision theory, activation energy, rate laws, and mechanisms need to be considered. Collision theory gives insight into why certain collisions lead to products being formed, while others do not. Activation energy provides information about the number of collisions needed before a reaction starts. Rate laws describe how the rate of a reaction depends on the concentrations of reactants. Mechanisms explain the exact pathway of the reaction from starting material to product.

“The development of science requires courage to challenge conventional wisdom” – Ahmed Zewail

It’s essential to have prior knowledge of calculus for effective analysis of kinetic data concerning complex equations required for deriving rate-laws and rate constants.

Physical chemistry is not an easy field of study, but it’s also not impossible. With the correct resources and persistence, anyone can master the basics and delve deeper into this exciting subject!

How to Study Physical Chemistry Effectively?

Practice Problem-Solving

If you are wondering if physical chemistry is hard, you are not alone. Many students find this subject challenging due to its abstract nature and complex mathematical concepts. The best way to master physical chemistry is by practicing problem solving regularly.

Try to solve problems from various sources, including your textbook, reference books, and online resources. Don’t just memorize the formulas; instead, understand their underlying principles and apply them to different scenarios.

You can also work on sample problems with a study group or seek help from professors during office hours. By making problem-solving a regular part of your study routine, you can improve your understanding of the subject and feel more confident when facing exams.

Understand the Fundamentals

One key factor that makes physical chemistry hard for many students is the lack of a strong foundation in fundamental concepts. To succeed in physical chemistry, you need to understand topics like thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, and molecular structure at a deep level.

To build a solid foundation, start by reviewing the basics before delving into advanced topics. Make sure you have a good grasp of calculus and algebra since they form a crucial part of physical chemistry. Follow a systematic approach to learn each topic and break down complex ideas into manageable parts.

Take advantage of resources such as textbooks, lecture notes, and video tutorials to supplement your knowledge. Try to make connections between different concepts and think about how they relate to real-world applications.

Physical chemistry requires dedication and hard work, but with the right study strategies, you can master this subject. Remember to practice problem-solving regularly and build a solid foundation of fundamental concepts, which will help you succeed in your exams and future career as a chemist.

What are the Best Resources to Learn Physical Chemistry?


Physical chemistry can be a challenging subject for many students, but choosing the right textbook can make all the difference. Look for a comprehensive textbook with clear explanations and plenty of practice problems. One highly recommended option is “Physical Chemistry” by Peter Atkins and Julio de Paula, which provides in-depth coverage of key concepts and includes helpful graphs and illustrations.

“Molecular Driving Forces” by Ken Dill and Sarina Bromberg is another excellent resource that covers both physical chemistry and biophysical chemistry topics in detail. This textbook provides a thorough understanding of principles such as thermodynamics, statistical mechanics, and chemical kinetics using real-world examples and practical applications.

Online Courses

If you prefer a more interactive learning experience, there are several online courses available that can help you master physical chemistry concepts. Websites such as Coursera, edX, and Khan Academy offer free or low-cost classes from top universities around the world.

One highly-rated course on Coursera is “Introduction to Physical Chemistry” from the University of Manchester, which covers fundamental concepts such as atomic structure, bonding, and energy transfer. Another popular option is “Thermodynamics: An Engineering Approach” from MIT OpenCourseWare, which delves into the science of energy, entropy, and heat transfer.

Professors and Tutors

For personalized guidance and assistance with difficult concepts, consider seeking out a professor or tutor who specializes in physical chemistry. Many colleges and universities offer tutoring services through their academic departments, so be sure to check if this is an option at your school.

You may also want to consider hiring a private tutor who can work with you one-on-one to identify areas where you need extra help and provide targeted feedback. Websites such as Wyzant,, and Chegg Tutors offer a wide selection of qualified tutors who can assist you with physical chemistry and other subjects.

Study Groups

Studying with others can be a great way to stay motivated and get support when tackling challenging subjects like physical chemistry. Joining a study group can provide opportunities to ask questions, discuss course material, and practice solving problems together.

You may want to start by checking if your school has a physical chemistry or chemistry club that meets regularly. If not, consider starting your own study group with classmates or reaching out to online forums or social media groups dedicated to chemistry education.

“Physical chemistry is definitely one of the hardest courses students have to take in their undergraduate career. It’s important for students to utilize all the resources available to them – from textbooks to professors to online learning platforms – in order to succeed.” – Dr. Christine Cziko, Associate Professor of Chemistry at the University of Illinois Chicago

While physical chemistry may be a difficult subject, there are plenty of resources available to help you master it. By investing time and effort into studying with high-quality materials and seeking out expert guidance, you can build a strong foundation of understanding and excel in this challenging field.

Can Anyone Succeed in Physical Chemistry?

Physical chemistry is a branch of chemistry that studies the physical properties and behavior of matter, as well as the interactions between different types of molecules and their environments. Many students find this subject challenging due to its complex concepts and mathematical equations. However, success in physical chemistry is possible with hard work, effective study habits, seeking help when needed, and passion for the subject.

Hard Work and Persistence

Physical chemistry requires dedication and persistence to overcome its challenges. Understanding the fundamental principles and theories is essential before attempting problems and equations. It takes time and repeated effort, so it’s essential to track progress regularly and consistently practice problem-solving skills daily.

In addition to conceptual understanding, one must also master mathematical calculations related to thermodynamics, kinetics, and spectroscopy. A strong foundation in mathematics is critical for performing computations effectively, so make sure to review algebra, calculus, and differential equations.

“The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.” -Confucius

Effective Study Habits

Developing effective studying habits can help excel in physical chemistry. Creating a favorable environment, free from distractions, can lead to motivation to learn. Making a study schedule helps keep you on track to complete homework assignments, reading chapters, reviewing notes, and taking breaks while maintaining focus during lengthy sessions.

Joining or creating study groups promotes collaboration amongst peers and provides another perspective on problems’ solutions. Participating in active learning activities such as practicing flashcards, writing reactions, and reviewing practice exams will train long-term memory retention, allowing efficient recall at examination time.

“Study without desire spoils the memory, and it retains nothing that it takes in.” -Leonardo da Vinci

Seeking Help When Needed

When studying physical chemistry, there will be times when a topic is challenging to understand or solve. It’s important not to get discouraged and seek guidance from professors, teaching assistants, classmates, or online resources.

Professors often have office hours where students can ask questions and clarify concepts related to coursework. Teaching assistants may hold review sessions for exams that allow students to practice problems while receiving feedback on their work. Online resource platforms like Khan Academy, YouTube, and Chemistry Libretexts provide additional examples of topics covered in textbooks and lecture notes.

“The wise man doesn’t give the right answers; he poses the right questions.” -Claude Levi-Strauss

Passion and Interest in the Subject

Studying physical chemistry without interest or passion makes it more difficult as the content covers advanced theories and equations. It helps if you find what fascinates molecular systems’ intricate details or their response to different environments triggers an eagerness to learn. Gaining excitement through lectures, research papers, or participating in laboratory experiments fosters a drive to continue learning.

Those who specialize in physical chemistry fields show high demand for jobs such as pharmaceuticals, environmental science, material sciences, and energy development require knowledge contributed by this field of study, fueling the importance of gaining understanding of these complex concepts.

“Passion leads to purpose, which ultimately sparks innovation” -Bob Ross
In conclusion, certainly applying proactive strategies builds proficiency with success within challenging subjects such as physical chemistry, including hard work and persistence toward grasping fundamental principles, developing effective study habits to assimilate new information thoroughly, seeking help when needed allows mistakes made along the way to become opportunities rather than failure, and harnessing one’s interest to bring excitement and relevance to the content being studied.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Physical Chemistry harder than other branches of Chemistry?

Physical Chemistry is often considered one of the most challenging branches of Chemistry due to its heavy use of mathematics and physics. However, difficulty can vary depending on individual strengths and interests. Some students may find Organic Chemistry or Analytical Chemistry more challenging.

What are the main challenges in learning Physical Chemistry?

Mathematics is perhaps the biggest challenge when learning Physical Chemistry. Concepts such as differential equations, linear algebra, and calculus are heavily used in this branch of Chemistry. Additionally, understanding abstract concepts such as thermodynamics and quantum mechanics can also be difficult for some students.

Can I succeed in Physical Chemistry if I struggle with math?

While math is a significant component of Physical Chemistry, it is not the only one. Students who struggle with math can still succeed in Physical Chemistry by focusing on understanding the concepts and applying them to real-world examples. It may require extra effort, but with dedication and effective study strategies, success is possible.

What are some effective study strategies for learning Physical Chemistry?

Effective study strategies for Physical Chemistry include practicing problems regularly, reading the textbook carefully, attending lectures and asking questions, working in study groups, and seeking help from professors or tutors when needed. Additionally, breaking down complex concepts into smaller, more manageable parts can aid in understanding.

Is it worth the effort to learn Physical Chemistry?

Physical Chemistry is a fascinating field with numerous practical applications, including drug development, materials science, and energy research. Additionally, a strong understanding of Physical Chemistry can lead to career opportunities in various industries. While it may require extra effort, the rewards and benefits of learning Physical Chemistry can be significant.

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