Introduction - Organic Chemistry I For Dummies, 2nd Edition (2014)

Organic Chemistry I For Dummies, 2nd Edition (2014)


Regrettably, when many people think of chemicals, the first things that usually pop into their minds are substances of a disagreeable nature — harmful pesticides and chemical pollutants, nerve agents and chemical weapons, or carcinogens and toxins.

But most chemicals play roles of a more positive nature. For example, both water and sugar are chemicals. Why are these chemicals important? Well, for one thing, both are components of beer. The enzymes in yeasts are also important chemicals used in fermentation, a process that involves the breakdown of sugars into beer. Ethyl alcohol is the all-important chemical responsible for beer’s effect on the body. In my view, these three representative examples of chemicals thoroughly rebut the notion that all chemicals are bad.

In fact, those who have a bad opinion of all chemicals must suffer from the psychological condition of self-loathing, because human bodies are essentially large vats of chemicals. Your skin is made up of chemicals — along with your heart, lungs, kidneys, and all your other favorite organs and appendages. And most of the chemicals in your body — in addition to the chemicals in all other living things — are not just any kinds of chemicals, but organic chemicals. So, anyone who has any interest at all in the machinery of living things (or in the chemistry of beer and wine) will have to deal at some point and at some level with organic chemistry.

Of course, the natures of these dealings have historically not always been so pleasant. Pre-med students and bio majors (and even chemistry majors) have butted heads with organic chemistry for decades, and, regrettably, the winner of this duel has not always been the human.

Part of the problem, I think, comes from students’ preconceptions of organic chemistry. I admit that, like many students, I had the worst preconceptions going into organic chemistry. When I thought of organic class, I thought of wearying trivia about the chemical elements, coma-inducing lectures delivered in a monotone, complex mathematical equations sprawling across mile-long chalkboards, and a cannon fire of structures and chemical reactions vomited one after the other in succession. The only successful students, I thought, would be those wearing thick spectacles, periodic-table ties, and imitation leather shoes with Velcro straps.

But if my preconceptions of organic lecture were bad, my preconceptions of organic labs were worse. I feared the organic laboratory course, certain the instant I would step into the lab, all the chemicals would instantly vaporize, condense on my unclothed extremities, and permeate my hair, pores, follicles, and nails. As a result, my skin would erupt in a rash. I would bald. My nails would yellow. The love of my life would take one look at my scarred physiognomy, sicken of men, and leave me sitting alone, Job-like, amongst the ashes of my existence, scratching my weeping sores with a broken potsherd.

Turns out I was wrong on that one. I was surprised to find that I actually liked organic chemistry. I really liked doing it — it was fun! And working in the laboratory making new substances was less toxic than I thought it would be and was instead interesting and even entertaining. I was wrong about the math, too: If you can count to 11 without taking off your shoes, you can do the math in organic chemistry. The turning point, really, was when I stopped fighting organic chemistry, stopped feeding my preconceptions, and changed my attitude. That was when I really started enjoying the subject.

I hope you choose not to fight organic chemistry from the beginning (as I did) and instead decide to just get along and become friends with organic chemistry. In that case, this book will help you get to know organic chemistry as quickly as possible (and as well as possible), so that when your professor decides to test you on how well you know your newfound comrade, you’ll do just fine.

About This Book

With Organic Chemistry I For Dummies, I’ve written the book that I would’ve wanted when I was taking the first semester of organic chemistry. That means that this book is very practical. It doesn’t try to mimic a textbook, or try to replace it. Instead, it’s designed as a complement to a text, highlighting the most important concepts in your textbook. Whereas a textbook gives you mostly a “just-the-facts-ma’am” style of coverage of the material — and provides you with lots of problems at the ends of chapters to see if you can apply those facts — this book acts as an interpreter, translator, and guide to the fundamental concepts in the subject. This book also gets to the nuts and bolts of how to actually go about tackling certain problems in organic chemistry.

Tackling the problems is where the majority of students have the most trouble, in part because so many aspects of a problem must be considered. Where’s the best place to start a problem? What should you be on the lookout for? What interesting features (that is, sneaky tricks) do professors like to slip into problems, and what’s the best strategy for tackling a particular problem type? I answer some of these questions in this book. Although this book cannot possibly show you how to solve every kind of problem that you encounter in organic chemistry, it does provide guides for areas that, in my experience, students typically have trouble with.

Beyond the problem types covered, these guides should give you insight into how to logically go about solving problems in organic chemistry. They show you how to rationally organize your thoughts and illustrate the kind of thinking you need to perform when approaching new problems in organic chemistry. In this way, you see how to swim instead of just panicking after being shoved abruptly into the deep end of the pool.

Additionally, I make clear the most important underlying principles in organic chemistry. I use familiar and easy-to-understand language, along with a great many clarifying analogies, to make palatable the hard concepts and technical jargon that comes with the territory. While this book is designed for students taking a first-semester course in introductory organic chemistry, it should also be a solid primer for those who want to understand the subject independently of a course.

Foolish Assumptions

In this book, I assume that you’ve had at least some chemistry in the past, and that you’re familiar with the basic principles of chemistry. For example, I assume that you’re familiar with the periodic table, that you understand what atoms are and what they’re made up of (neutrons, protons, and electrons), and that you have some knowledge of bonding and chemical reactions. You should also know about kinetics (like rate equations and rate constants) and chemical equilibria. If you’ve had a two-semester course in general chemistry, that’s perfect. (If you feel that your general chemistry is a bit rusty, turn to Chapter 2 — there, I review the most important concepts that you need to know for organic chemistry.)

Icons Used in This Book

Icons are the helpful little pictures in the margins. I use them to give you a heads-up about the material. I use the following icons in this book:

tip I use this icon when giving timesaving pointers.

remember I double dip with this icon. I use it not only to jog your memory about something that you should have learned previously, but also for really important concepts that you should remember.

warning I use this icon to warn you of common traps that students can fall into when tackling certain problems.

technicalstuff I try to avoid getting too technical, so you won’t see this icon very much. When I use it, I do so to mark a discussion of a concept that’s a little more in depth (which you can skip if you want to).

Beyond the Book

In addition to the material in the print or e-book you’re reading right now, this product also comes with some access-anywhere material on the web. For the common functional groups in organic chemistry and the periodic table of elements. To view this book’s Cheat Sheet, simply go and search for Organic Chemistry I For Dummies Cheat Sheet in the search box.

You can find some articles online that tie together and offer new insights to the material you find in this book. To view this book’s Extras, simply go to and search for Organic Chemistry I For Dummies Extras in the search box.

Where to Go from Here

In short, from here you can go anywhere you want. All of the chapters in this book are designed to be modular, so you can hop-scotch around, reading the chapters in any order you find most suitable. Perhaps you’re having trouble with a particular concept, like drawing resonance structures or solving for structures using NMR spectroscopy. In that case, skip straight to the chapter that deals with that particular topic. Or, if you want, you can read the book straight through, using it as a kind of interpreter and guide to the textbook.

If you get the gist of what organic is all about, and have a solid background in the critical concepts in general chemistry — like electron configuration, orbitals, and bonding — you may want to skip the first two chapters and dive right into Chapter 3, which explains how organic structures are drawn. Or you may want to just skim the first couple chapters as a quick introduction and memory refresher (summer vacations have a strange way of wiping your memory slate sparkly clean, particularly in the area of chemistry).

This book is yours, so use it in any way you think will help you the most.