organic chemistry

What is Organic Chemistry?

Read Time: 3 minutes

People like to say that “We are all made of stardust.” It’s a reminder that humanity is connected to the farthest reaches of space and the smallest grain of sand. Where biology explores continuously occurring processes of living organisms, organic chemistry studies the common core that connects most living things on Earth — a study that focuses on carbon and its ability to form larger molecules.

What’s the difference between what’s dead and alive? It’s the conversion of ingested fuel into usable energy which designates a living thing from one that’s dead, or an inorganic compound. Organic chemistry solely concentrates on the element of carbon as the building block of living organisms. Nonliving things also contain carbon compounds, such as diamonds, dyes, plastic and drugs.

Carbon Bonds Form a Structural and Stable Building Block

Think of a diamond and its durability. Since carbon forms a tight bond, with a valence of four, it’s the most structurally sound element to be used as a building block in other forms. Remember how carbon is able to combine with at most four additional atoms? Now, picture the larger structures created by the bonding action of carbon. Organic molecules can contain various structural parts of living organisms, such as proteins, carbohydrates, lipids and nucleic acids.

Carbon’s four electrons bond with additional atoms. For example, carbon bonds with hydrogen to share an electron and vice versa, creating hydrocarbons, which are very common to living organisms. Other common bonds include oxygen, sulfur and nitrogen.

Carbon can also bond into straight or ringed long chains that result in low reactivity. Though biology uses different reactivity measurements, carbon’s long bonds influence reactivity in terms of reduction.

Also, a compound is the most reactive when it has a high boiling and melting point. For example, methane (CH4) contains four hydrogen atoms connected to one carbon, and since it’s short as a carbon compound — in fact, the shortest — its boiling point is the lowest. At room temperature, it’s a gas and extremely reactive.

Least reactive compounds are formed with longer carbon chains, and you could compare this boiling point to water as an example. Since it takes more time to boil, the compound is less reactive and will not be in a gaseous state at room temperature.

Similar Properties Form Functional Groups

Molecules that possess similar physical or chemical properties group together. Similar properties are formed due to similar arrangements of atoms, and these groupings are defined as functional groups.

As you recall, chemical properties are produced by a substance transforming into another through reaction. For example, a chemical property of chlorine gas is its explosiveness when combined with sodium, yet it produces a substance that sits benignly on your dining room table — salt.

Physical properties reference various forms a substance takes, but the original substance always stays the same. No chemical change or reaction happens to produce a new substance.

Functional groups have their own special properties, including acidity and polarity. Consider the functional group carboxyl (-COOH), which is a weak acid. Polarity describes a molecule with a charge at one end (polar) and no charge at the other end (nonpolar) and also dictates the force of attraction between molecules in a liquid form. Polarity can also make up the “outside” and “inside” of the example group, with a plasma membrane with hydrophilic heads (think –philic as “loving”) with a polar charge and hydrophobic tails (think –phobic as “fearing”) on the inside.

In this case, you can make heads and tails of organic chemistry, sometimes, with a little help from root words. Organic chemistry focuses on carbon, and it’s interesting to note that a carbon atom can combine with itself, as one of the few with this capability. This gives carbon the ability to form stable long chains and serve as the building block of life.

At first, organic chemistry appears a little intimidating, but it has a grander purpose in revealing the structural building blocks of organic and even inorganic compounds. A simple understanding of organic chemistry leads to you a greater understanding of other sciences as well, such as astronomy.

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Category: Chemistry

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Article by: Megan Ray Nichols

Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance science writer and science enthusiast. Her favorite subjects include astronomy and the environment. Megan is also a regular contributor to The Naked Scientists, Thomas Insights, and Real Clear Science. When she isn't writing, Megan loves watching movies, hiking, and stargazing.