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1.1: Prelude to Organic Chemistry

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    You now are starting the study of organic chemistry, which is the chemistry of compounds of carbon. In this introductory chapter, we will tell you something of the background and history of organic chemistry, something of the problems and the rewards involved, and something of our philosophy of what is important for you to learn so that you will have a reasonable working knowledge of the subject, whether you are just interested in chemistry or plan for a career as a chemist, an engineer, a physician, a biologist, and so on. The subject is very large; more than two million organic compounds have been isolated or prepared and characterized, yet the number of guiding principles is relatively small. You certainly will not learn everything about organic chemistry from this book, but with a good knowledge of the guiding principles, you will be able later to find out what you need to know either from the chemical literature, or directly by experiment in the laboratory.

    Unfortunately, learning about and learning how to use organic chemistry is not a straightforward process, wherein one step leads to another in a simple, logical way like Euclidean geometry. A more realistic analogy would be to consider yourself thrust into and required to deal successfully with a sizable group of strangers speaking a new and complex language. In such a situation, one has to make many decisions- how much of the language to learn at the outset? Which people are the best to interact with first? Which will be the most important to know in the long run? How well does one have to know each person? How much does one have to know about the history of the group to understand their interactions? These are difficult questions, and a period of confusion, if not anxiety, is expected in any attempt to complete a task of this kind in a set, brief period of time. Clearly, it would be difficult to learn all at once the language, the people, and the interactions between them. Nonetheless, this is pretty much what is expected of you in learning organic chemistry.

    A number of approaches have been devised to help you become familiar with and use organic chemistry. In terms of our analogy, one way is to learn the language, then the relationships between the people, and finally, well prepared, to proceed to interact with the people singly and then in groups. Such an approach may be logical in concept, but is not to everyone's taste as a way to learn. Many of us do better with an interactive approach, where language, relationships, and people are worked out more or less in concert, with attendant misunderstandings and ambiguities.

    What we will try to do is to introduce some of the important basic concepts and the elements of the language of organic chemistry, then show how these are used in connection with various classes of compounds. The initial round will be a fairly extensive one and you should not expect to be able to master everything at once. This will take practice and we will provide opportunity for practice.

    One of the appealing yet bothersome features of modern organic chemistry is its extraordinary vitality. Unlike Euclidean geometry or classical mechanics, it is evolving rapidly and many of the concepts introduced in this book are either new or have been drastically modified in the past ten years. Every issue of the current chemical journals has material of such basic interest that one would like to include it in an introductory course. Truly, those who write organic textbooks write on water, with no hope of producing the definitive book. Things just change too fast. Despite this, one of the great ideas of modern civilization, namely that organic compounds can be described in terms of more or less simple three-dimensional molecular structures with atoms held together by chemical bonds, has persisted for more than one hundred years and seems unlikely to be superseded, no matter how much it is refined and modified.

    Contributors and Attributions

    John D. Robert and Marjorie C. Caserio (1977) Basic Principles of Organic Chemistry, second edition. W. A. Benjamin, Inc. , Menlo Park, CA. ISBN 0-8053-8329-8. This content is copyrighted under the following conditions, "You are granted permission for individual, educational, research and non-commercial reproduction, distribution, display and performance of this work in any format."

    This page titled 1.1: Prelude to Organic Chemistry is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by John D. Roberts and Marjorie C. Caserio.

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