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Orgo (Not) Made Simple: Learning About Ourselves By Studying The Sciences

Organic chemistry. Who knew a little atom like carbon could send books, molecular modeling kits, and let’s face it, some students’ sanity flying out the window.

Whether you’ve only heard about it in passing, know from a friend, or are taking the course, there is mutual agreement that orgo’s reputation for being the “weed-out class” for pre-med students is well-deserved.

Orgo is the study of carbon-based compounds and their various chemical reactions, one step higher than the standard “acid + base = water + salt” reactions you learned in high school. An important part of orgo is learning about different reaction mechanisms—how electrons move in a chemical reaction, to make different chemical products.

But what exactly makes orgo so difficult? Being introduced to a multitude of different reaction mechanisms in a short span of time and having to understand the exact logic behind every step is a Herculean task. It takes hours, and I mean hours, to understand the nuances of a mechanism until you know every single step like the back of your hand.

From there, you have to be able to combine all of those principles and apply them in any number of ways to accomplish a goal. You have to be able to instantly “diagnose” a problem and see which mechanism would get you from a specific reactant to the desired product. You have to be able to know why some reactions don’t work because of the special properties of a molecule. You have to be able to reason your way through a problem. You have to be able to visualize. You have to be able to think critically.

Orgo isn’t about the end or even the beginning, but rather the journey that gets you from reactant to product—but don’t get too sentimental. Unfortunately, the beloved phrase “not all who wander are lost” doesn’t apply to orgo—if you find yourself wandering, you’re probably lost. Just as one does not simply walk into Mordor, one does not simply walk into an orgo exam without studying days in advance.

Everything I’ve said is abstract to the point where you probably still can’t comprehend exactly how difficult orgo is. You may be lulled into a false sense of security from looking at the pretty shapes you draw on paper, although it is a nice reprieve for students who had trouble grasping the computational aspect of chemistry (I’m looking at you, gen chem). But the truth is, you’ll never understand the complexity of orgo until you’re actually sitting in the class.

It may seem like there’s no point in learning reactions as you fill up pages of scrap paper practicing mechanisms that all seem to work the same way, draw arrows which point to hexagons which point to pentagons which point to triangles, and puzzle out how to synthesize a specific molecule in exactly five steps. But, I believe there is a method to the madness, and I’ll continue to do so if only to maintain my sanity.

With the amount of effort that goes into learning orgo, there’s nothing like that feeling of accomplishment when all your hard work finally pays off. Not many people will understand what it feels like when an experiment runs smoothly, when you finally finish a lengthy homework assignment, or when you get a good grade on an exam you devoted your entire weekend to studying for.

With the satisfaction of closing your textbook, taking off your safety goggles, and hanging up your lab coat comes the knowledge that you’ve just uncovered a small secret of the universe.

As fellow scientist-philosopher René Descartes would say, the very process of conducting an experiment brings us one step closer to being “masters and possessors of nature.” It’s comforting to know that at least one person is rooting for the scientists.

For example, look at what some scientists are doing: from visualizing sub-atomic particles, to eradicating the deadliest diseases, to sampling the surfaces of distant planets, our scientific advancements are a testament to what we have done and what we can do to master nature. But before we get there, we students first have to master orgo to understand the basic laws that govern our universe.

To end on a lighter note (and to placate my professors, past and present, who may be reading this), I will say this about chemistry: while you can definitely have an existential crisis at the thought that we’re just a bunch of atoms studying other atoms, there’s a certain beauty in learning about how the universe works and becoming a little bit more aware about your place in it.

So I begin my time as an editor for The Heights how I began as a contributing writer a year ago: talking about chemistry and trying to view it from a different perspective—just like orgo, actually. Quite a cyclic tale, if you get the pun.

No, orgo is not made simple. It simply can’t be—it’s complexity merely reflects how complex we are as human beings, because we are made of the same stuff scientists dedicate their lives to studying in the hope that one day we’ll not only become masters of the universe, but also masters of ourselves.

Now if you would excuse me, I have an orgo final to study for.

Featured Image by Robin Kim / Heights Staff

December 7, 2015