Why Study Organic Chemistry?

I wrote this a while back to kick off a series of notes for an organic chemistry refresher course for secondary school teachers. It seemed appropriate to post in light of the recent war on chemophobia taking place on the Internet. We are a small band of fighters, but we will prevail! —mevans

I think it’s essential for every professor of organic chemistry to conceive a good response to the title question. In today’s age of student-centered learning and practical education for concrete skills, a “good” answer should both convince students that the subject is valuable and speak to its more general worth to society. In this short introductory section, I describe my reasons why organic chemistry is worth studying, and what dedicated students of the subject can expect to gain from it.

I’ll begin with a focus on the practical value of organic chemistry to society. Organic compounds permeate our daily lives in an unfathomable number of ways. Organic compounds play an essential role in such diverse fields as genetics, materials science, nutrition, kinesiology and consumer products development. Each of these fields depends one way or another on our ability to make organic compounds (naturally or otherwise), the knowledge of which rests on an understanding of the fundamentals of structure and reactivity. It is becoming clearer daily that many of the biological processes that sustain human life can be viewed in the light of the elementary steps of organic chemistry. For many applications, such as light-emitting diodes and solar cells, we are only just beginning to realize the potential of organic compounds. As the scope and importance of organic chemistry continue to grow, our need to study it increases accordingly.

For the average undergraduate encountering organic chemistry in her second year of study, the call to action in the previous paragraph may understandably fall on deaf ears. However, in addition to being important in a practical sense, the practice of learning and applying organic chemistry can bring immense cognitive fulfillment to the student. With practice and feedback, you will begin to see that we understand organic chemistry as governed by a relatively small set of general principles that can be applied to a massive number of cross-disciplinary problems. As you add more general principles to your toolbox of ideas, you’ll find that your rate of learning grows exponentially. For some, drawing chemical structures and reaction mechanisms is even a kind of aesthetic release. Learning one mechanism begets a desire to learn another, to fill in the holes in one’s understanding.

For me personally, the cognitive benefits of organic chemistry are more important than its practical value. I truly feel that those who study organic chemistry are tapping into nature’s essential order and understanding a network of ideas that transcends time and space, a body of work based on human achievement but surpassing human experience. The system developed by chemists over the last two hundred years to explain the structure and behavior of carbon-containing molecules is, in my (biased) opinion, one of the greatest conceptual systems ever built by man. The interested student will find no shortage of compelling ideas in the field of organic chemistry—and yet, many of its core principles are beautifully simple and natural.

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3 Comments

  1. I love organic chemistry lectures. Organic chemistry, when taught by an accomplished wizard, is beautiful.

    But when I get back home and do my homework, most of the time I’m surprised (not anymore) to see that the products of this or that reaction aren’t the ones I was thinking of.

    My own experience tells me that organic chemistry is an art, a very informed and intelligent guesswork. Once you get past a certain point (that was after aromatics chemistry for me), things aren’t so straightforward as they were. Mechanisms can be a bit more tricky to fathom, as many times the route to your final product isn’t obvious from a glance at the starting material. One example of such a situation would be Diels-Alder -> Cope/Claisen rearrangement -> Diels-Alder -> Product.

    Maybe the problem’s with my brain, but I find that organic chemistry isn’t as intuitive as physical chemistry. To me, an SNAr reaction between a nucleophile and fluorobenzene should _not_ happen! My idea of a carbon-fluorine bond is that it’s pretty much…. inert!

    Anyway, I’ve just found out about your blog. I will be checking it out.

    Yours,
    CHM.

    Reply

    1. I know what you mean! There’s definitely a transition from student to expert that involves negotiating flexibility and learning to work with multiple mechanistic possibilities at once. It’s not for everyone. For some insane examples of these kinds of mechanistic mental gymnastics, check out Alonso’s The Art of Problem Solving in Organic Chemistry…there are some sick problems in that book.

      Then again, there’s more to organic chemistry than mechanisms… 🙂 I was drawn to the creative possibilities of organic synthesis, for example.

      Reply

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