Justifying organic chemistry

Johanna Miller writes in Physics Today about how she was able to enjoy learning organic chemistry in her senior year of undergraduate study: by understanding that science is a collection of concepts, not a collection of facts. She also argues that this is in fact the key to enjoying organic chemistry, which can otherwise get quickly tedious, and that many students don’t because their teachers fail to help them towards this conclusion.

She could be true – far be it from me to dispute the opinions of a scientist-communicator – but it is proving very hard for me to believe it because my own organic chemistry experience was incredibly bad. Unlike Miller, I was first exposed to the subject in high school, in a classroom of 40 students packed inside a room with two fans, in the sweltering afternoon heat of pre-summer Chennai. All I wanted was to go home.

Then, it was impossible to understand why all those reactions were important – but we had no time to discuss that. The board exams were almost upon us, as was this or that quiz at the IIT JEE coaching class. My chemistry teacher, a small lady with a tiny voice but an imposing demeanour, seemed uninterested in justifying why it was crucial for us to know about the Hell-Volhard-Zelinsky reaction. She moved through the syllabus at the rate of five or six reactions per lecture. Even her counterpart at the coaching class had a reputation of being an excellent teacher only because he supplied handy mnemonics to memorise the arrangement of single and double bonds.

The thing is, organic chemistry feels difficult even after acknowledging that it is a collection of more elegant concepts like quantum mechanics, group theory and electromagnetism – as Miller writes – because understanding ‘science is a collection of concepts’ is not the only problem. Students are not expected to learn the principles of organic chemistry. Instead, they are subjected to a collection of multiple reactions to manipulate a variety of substances without any discernible logic as to their selection. The principles of organic chemistry, on the other hand, could have been far more enjoyable because then the students’ grade would be reaction-agnostic.

Right now, that is not the case, at least in India. And it is the only reason I remember the Hell-Volhard-Zelinsky reaction (principally because I remember wondering, in 2005, why anyone would name their child “Hell”).