Organic chemistry has long been notorious as one of the most difficult of undergraduate university classes; however, it is a very important field central to modern medicine and many of the biological sciences. Put simply, organic chemistry is “the study of carbon compounds” (Clark, Williams, Castka, 673). That is, organic chemistry is the study of molecules that contain one or more atoms of carbon.
Carbon has long been known to be one of the central building blocks of life, and “originally, organic chemistry was defined as the study of materials derived from living organisms” (369). However, in 1828, Friedrich Wöhler synthesized urea definitely proving that organic substances can come from nonliving sources. Since that time, organic chemistry has expanded to include the study of all carbon compounds regardless of whether or not they have been derived from living organisms.
Carbon atoms often link together and with other elements to form molecular rings or chains, and it is these carbon-based molecules that form the crux of organic chemistry. Many organic molecules are composed of nothing but hydrogen and carbon, and these compounds are called hydrocarbons.
The element carbon has four valence electrons and can therefore form single, double, and triple covalent bonds. Alkanes are hydrocarbons containing only single bonds, alkenes are hydrocarbons containing at least one double bond, and an alkyne is a hydrocarbon containing a triple bond.
The alkanes are quite familiar to most people, and are encountered by many people on a day-to-day basis. The name of each alkane ends in “an”. The beginning of each alkane’s name indicates the number number of carbon atoms in the chain, and sometimes a prefix indicates smaller chains connected to the main carbon chain. There are several rules of nomenclature that must be learned by every organic chemistry student, and sometimes the naming process can become quite complex. However, names of some of the simplest and most common alkanes include methane, ethane, propane, and butane.
Alkanes, alkenes, and alkynes form carbon chains using single, double, and triple bonds; however, sometimes carbons may join to form carbon-based “rings” that may be triangular, square, pentagonal, hexagonal, or other shapes. These carbon-rings are called aromatic hydrocarbons. A fairly well-known aromatic hydrocarbon is benzene which contains six hydrogen atoms and six carbon atoms that are joined in a ring.
It is important for every organic chemistry student to be able to name a given organic molecule when given the molecule’s components. However, it is also necessary for students to be able to draw a molecule given its name. There are several different conventions of drawing molecules, and different depictions may be required depending on the situation.
After learning to name and draw organic molecules, one may study the properties of such molecules and the reactions they undergo. Organic chemistry includes the study of many organic substances such as alcohols, ketones, carboxylic acids, ethers, and esters. Many reactions that these molecules undergo can be quite complex, and these many of these reactions are also studied in a typical organic chemistry course.
Very few people consider organic chemistry an easy course; however, an understanding of the subject provides great insight into the world of living creatures and organic substances and the chemical interactions they undergo.
Source: Metcalfe, H. Clark., John E. Williams, and Joseph F. Castka. Modern Chemistry. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982. Print.