Q. Just what exactly is organic chemistry?
A. In the early days of chemistry, scientists found they could extract interesting compounds from substances sourced from living systems, such as butter, animal fat and so on. For this reason, these isolated chemicals generally became known as “organic.”. Today, organic chemistry is more generally considered to be the study of chemicals which are primarily based on carbon (although there are a few exceptions, such as carbon dioxide, which is not considered organic). The vast majority of chemicals are organic by this definition, including vitamins, proteins, pesticides, plastics and many others.
Organic chemistry involves understanding the structures and names of these compounds as well as how they react and how they are synthesized.
Q. Why do we study organic chemistry?
A. In many ways, organic chemistry is the gateway to the study of many other sciences, including biochemistry and biology. A good knowledge of the basics of organic chemistry lets you understand how living systems function, since biological systems are mostly made of organic compounds.
In addition, many industrial processes are essentially organic chemistry. The paint and coating, nutraceutical and pharmaceutical industries all involve organic reactions, for example.
As well, some knowledge of organic chemistry is also useful in just about any field of science for practical reasons. A lot of organic compounds are used as solvents, for example, so its helpful to know the difference between ethanol, methanol and isopropanol.
Q. What do we learn in the lectures?
A. All kinds of things! We begin with a brief study of how organic molecules are put together, by talking about bonding and electron structures. We then learn how to name organic compounds using the formal naming system devised by IUPAC.
As well, we learn about the most common reactions of organic chemicals. We’ll discuss how some everyday organic compounds are made, such as polyethylene, aspirin and 2,4-D.
The fascinating effects of isomerism are also considered. Isomers are chemicals which have the same atoms but different properties depending on how the atoms are put together. For a good intro to isomerism, check out this video.
Finally, the course also teaches the theory and practice of some common lab techniques, such as distillation.
Q. What about labs?
A. There are five to six lab sessions in each of the two organic chemistry courses. In these labs, you will apply the theory and see the results in action. Experiments include synthesizing interesting chemicals, such as a bright red dye (an azo dye: see the photo above and the note below!). You will also learn many standard organic lab techniques, such as distillation, recrystallization and melting point analysis. If you ever wanted to start making moonshine whiskey in your backyard shed, this is your starting point! (just kidding, please don’t start making moonshine in your shed.)
Q. Is it tough?
A. Organic chemistry can be challenging, but it’s doable! The subject matter is not extremely difficult, but it requires dedication and good study habits since there is a bit of memorization required in some places to be able to use the nomenclature system and also to recall the various reactions. However, if you can remember that positive and negative charges attract each other, you have just conquered about half of organic chemistry.
Note: the image shows Cadbury’s Easter Creme Eggs, which were recently involved in a scandal when the treat was found to contain an azo dye after the company had promised to remove it.