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  • Writer's pictureAdam Cook


This post was prompted by some neat discussions with a lab-mate this week.

Here it comes - the big question. The one question that any chemist can be sure to be asked one-million-and-four times over the course of their adventure in the discipline. A simple question, yet one that always seems to leave us stumbling. Put, in briefest of terms:

What is chemistry? Specifically, what is organic chemistry?

Well, as a chemist I can tell you that that's one of the hardest questions to answer. The foremost reason for this is that chemistry is complex, and the definition of organic chemistry changes depending on your source and familiarity with the discipline. For instance, we could look at the;

- Dictionary definition: Organic chemistry is defined as a branch of chemistry that is concerned with carbon and especially carbon compounds which are found in living things.

- ACS definition: Organic chemistry is the study of the structure, properties, composition, reactions, and preparation of carbon-containing compounds, which include not only hydrocarbons but also compounds with any number of other elements, including hydrogen (most compounds contain at least one carbon–hydrogen bond), nitrogen, oxygen, halogens, phosphorus, silicon, and sulfur.

- And the Wikipedia definition? Well - check out this great big webpage that probably won't make too much sense to anyone who isn't familiar with the field. Wikipedia is changing, but that's a different topic for a different day. Encyclopedic maybe, and certainly interesting - but perhaps not too accessible.

As we see, your definition of organic chemistry will surely change depending on how familiar you are with organic chemistry. This is why it is so hard for chemists to explain what chemistry is - I have found that as I've progressed through the discipline, the importance of all the things that I once wrote off as subtleties has been realized. Of course, for the purposes of this thought-cloud we will only concern ourselves with one definition of organic chemistry, and that is my definition. I prefer to keep it simple - I like to keep it practical and I like to explain organic chemistry using terms that can be related to by all audiences.

- Adam's definition: Organic chemistry is the magic that holds modern life together.

Organic chemistry is the magic that holds modernity together. That's it, and that's right - in my quest to define the discipline in practical, hands-on terms that are easy to understand, I enjoy using the not-so-practical term "magic". Hopefully I can do a fair job at explaining why in the forthcoming paragraphs.

In our time, organic chemistry exists as the central science - it lies at the heart of just about every development in the modern world. Of course, we all know that in its absence, the world would be without pharmaceuticals - check Pfizer, check Johnson & Johnson and so forth - all of the pharmaceutical giants in the world have their center of gravity in the field of organic chemistry.

But I think that we can take it further than just pharmaceuticals.

What if I told you that without organic chemistry, a significant chunk of the world would probably just die of starvation within months? That's right, and that's the truth. Teaming up with Carl Bosch of BASF (a top German agrochemical company) at the turn of the 20th century, Fritz Haber developed a process that allowed the synthesis of ammonia on an industrial scale. Today, this process is justly referred to as the "Haber-Bosch Process", and it is still the go-to protocol plants around the world use when producing the175ish million tons of ammonia that hit the global market each year. Put simply, ammonia = fertilizer, fertilizer = higher crop yields and higher crop yields = less starving people. The chemists out there know that there's a whole lot more to it than that, but as it pertains to the topic of "what is organic chemistry"... I mean I think that it all just comes down to looking at the incredible advancements which the discipline has allowed for. The most basic of which is simply keeping the 7.8 billion people of the planet well-fed.

Taking it a step further, we realize that organic chemistry lies at the heart of just about everything in modern society. Agrochemicals, petrochemicals, medicines, pesticides, artificial textiles, dyes, refrigerants, flavourings, detergents... these are all products that find their origins in the lab notebooks of organic chemists. Your computer - how do you think the materials were made? Where did that lacquer coating on your desk come from? Who invented the paint that lines my walls? Just about any question can be asked, and one can be sure to find the answer in the lab notebook of a pioneering organic chemist.

Can we take it further than that? Lol, of course - let's put ourselves 30 000-ft in the air. Let's look at life. Photosynthesis, cellular respiration, metabolism, anabolism, and all of the physiological processes that are responsible for the very existence of life - at their heart lies a chemical transformation. At their heart lies organic chemistry. Hormones, neurotransmitters, nervous impulses - how can they best be described? Through a chemical transformation that can be written in chalk on the board at the front of any high-school science class. Look with the right eyes towards the stars, and you'll recognize chemical transformations as the basis for all life on earth - what's the chemical reaction that allows the sun to heat up? What governed the condensation of matter after the Big Bang? How did primordial life evolve? It's all chemistry - I mean, the lines may blur between chemistry and biology or physics or engineering (and so forth), but chemistry - in particular organic chemistry - is always at the forefront.

Organic chemistry is the magic of modernity. Just as the circulatory system pumps blood throughout a body, organic chemistry pumps constant innovation throughout society. At the heart of absolutely everything in our world lies an innovation in organic chemistry. At the heart of everything lies a chemical transformation. Without doubt, I do not feel that defining such a discipline as "the study of carbon-containing compounds" does justice to the ubiquitous nature of organic chemistry.

Chemists and historians alike point towards Wohler's 1828 synthesis of urea from non-organic constituents as the birth of practical organic chemistry - and to that I would agree. But the soul of organic chemistry - that of rich innovation through chemical transformation - has without a shadow of a doubt been present since the dawn of time.

More on my interpretation of "the chemical transformation" in an upcoming post.


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