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Ian R Gould  > CHM 234 : General Organic Chemistry II  > Spring 2012
 CHM 234/238
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Why Am I Taking This Course? Why Study Organic Chemistry?

Organic chemicals are all around you, are what you are made of, and are the basis for life as we know it. But obviously you don't need to know nearly as much as I am going to teach you to appreciate that.
The real reason that most of you are taking organic is that it is required for your major/medical school application or whatever. Somebody somewhere decided that to achieve your long-term career goal, you should either know organic, or at least have been exposed to the organic chemistry method of problem solving. We all know that a couple of weeks after the final you will have already forgotten a lot of the material, the material obviously isn't the "point". In my opinion, this is the point:
Organic Chemistry may be the best Liberal Arts class you will ever take!!

"It is not so very important for a person to learn facts, for that he doesn't really need a college education, for he can learn them from books. The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think, something that cannot be learned from books."   (Albert Einstein)
Let's see if I can convince you. Organic chemistry involves a problem solving method that most of you have not seen before. Sometimes the problems can be solved forwards, sometimes they have to be solved backwards! Sometimes there is no single clear-cut answer, often the problems are hard work! It is a little different from, say, physics, where if you know or can derive the equation you have solved the problem. In organic it is not always obvious which piece of information you need, or there may be more than one explanation, you need to figure out which is the best model to use in each particular case. You will also have to learn how to organize a lot of sometimes seemingly disparate pieces of information and figure out which one you need. If you can learn to do organic chemistry, you will acquire valuable problem-solving skills. We are trying to teach you how to think!
I am going to ask you to solve questions whose answers you can not look up in a book! You won't have a solution manual to help you in the real world. You will hopefully be learning not to be afraid of solving problems entirely on your own. This is one reason we put so much emphasis on retrosynthesis questions, for example. You cannot look up the answers to these problems on Google! To solve these problems you have to pull together different reactions and work out how to put them together. Retrosynthesis helps us to get beyond memorizing a "laundry list" of organic reactions.
Solving Organic Chemistry problems is a challenge that can be interesting. You will have to be familiar with some facts, otherwise we won't be able to explore or communicate about the subject (try studying a foreign language without learning any vocabulary). We will ask you to become familiar with as few facts as possible. Note that we don't use the term memorize here. At the beginning of the first semester course, if you are asked where the electrons are in an atom, you correctly say atomic orbitals. At the beginning of the second semester course if I ask you how to brominate an alkane, you say use bromine and light. Did you have to memorize these two facts? No, you became familiar with these facts by using them and understanding their context. You can NOT memorize your way through this course. On the other hand, you will also not be able to work everything out. The way a real organic chemists solves most problems is by recognizing the similarity or relationship to something she/he is familiar with. If the problem is unfamiliar, then she/he will have to work it out, perhaps even from first principles (electronegativity, bonding etc). It isn't always easy, but it is very satisfying when it works.
If you don't like organic, I would suggest that you haven't (been able) to put the time into understanding it. If you really don't like organic, I think you need to ask yourself why you chose the major you did. Perhaps you need to be taking a very different course of study, one that demands a different kind of problem solving.
So the most important reason for studying Organic is to learn problem solving, but are there any other "real life" applications? Well, yeah! By the time you get through the entire course sequence, you will be able to impress your friends with all sorts of useless knowledge! You will understand (at least some of) those ingredients in processed foods, you will be able to make Ecstasy (IF you could get your hands on the starting materials, which are very closely controlled, so don't even think about it!), you will know how soap works, when you see the structure of a molecule you will know something about its properties, you will know something about important molecules just by knowing their names (e.g. you will know that cholesterol is obviously a kind of alcohol), you will understand that the important molecules in your body are left or right handed, you will know that nuclear magnetic resonance body imaging has nothing to do with nuclear fission (or fusion!), you will know why things have colors and why they are colored, you will know exactly what that stuff is that is put into gasoline in the summer.... get the idea?
I spend little time in class on examples of the role of organic chemistry in "real life". The reason is that it is very difficult and time-consuming to explain most real life examples in a way that is satisfying, so that they are not just a perhaps interesting, but nevertheless basically "cute" facts. However, so as not to neglect this area, I will try to come up with something interesting or relevant each week and put it on the Weekly Work part of the web page. Be prepared to be entertained with all sorts of useless facts, and also to see a question on each exam related to these pages!