Prior to the nineteenth century, chemists pursued science simply by taking measurements, before and after a chemical reaction, of the substances involved. This was an external approach, rather like a person reaching into a box and feeling of the contents without actually being able to see them. With the evolution of atomic theory, chemistry took on much greater definition: for the first time, chemists understood that the materials with which they worked were interacting on a level much too small to see. The effects, of course, could be witnessed, but the activities themselves involved the interactions of atoms in molecules. Just as an atom is the most basic particle of an element, a molecule is the basic particle of a compound. Whereas there are only about 90 elements that occur in nature, many millions of compounds are formed naturally or artificially. Hence the study of the molecule is at least as important to the pursuit of modern chemistry as the study of the atom. Among the most important subjects in chemistry are the ways in which atoms join to form molecules—not just the numbers and types of atoms involved, but the shape that they form together in the molecular structure.

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