I’ve written here on Associated Content before about the importance of science literacy, and that article turned out to be one of my most viewed articles.
Well, with the exception of the article I wrote about tell-tale signs of sexual attraction. I mean, come on. Some things just sell better, and sex is going to beat out chemistry every time.
But, what if I were to tell you that the mechanisms, the phenomena, of sex are based on organic chemistry? That we, as human beings, are based on organic chemistry? That we have surrounded ourselves and saturated our environment with organic chemicals? Maybe now I have your attention.
Organic chemistry is one of the five broad domains / regions of chemistry. You have analytical, biochemistry, physical chemistry, inorganic chemistry and organic chemistry. There are regions where each domain overlaps the other – physical organic chemistry, analytical biochemistry (anyone catch the latest episode of CSI?), and so forth. Organic chemistry is my personal choice, when it comes to a field of study within chemistry. It’s a bit silly, really, to talk about studying chemistry as a whole. The subject is just too vast. While a broad knowledge in all of it is necessary to gain an appreciation and an understanding of general trends across the board, when it comes time to specialize, those are your basic five choices.
In general, I’m a very laid back type of individual. However, I get downright passionate about the importance of organic chemistry, and in this article, I’m hoping that I can give you some examples from everyday life that show how a person can directly benefit from a knowledge of this subject. I don’t dare hope to convert everyone to being an organic chemist – that would be a bit silly really, with the job market as it is now – but I’ll settle for getting a few people to just, well, open their eyes a little. Be a little more aware of the organic chemistry that is all around them.
You see, while the rules of our very existence – the chemical laws that are the basis for human existence, the laws that govern heat, and light, and the composition of matter – while those belong to the chemistry field as a whole, and involve all of the elements of the Periodic Table, organic chemistry is concerned with only one of the >100 elements. With such a narrow focus, you may feel that organic chemistry can’t possibly be as important as I’m making it out to be. However, that one element which is the focus of discussion – carbon – has a unique property not readily found amongst any of the other elements: it can form stable bonds to another atom of carbon, and this trend can continue onwards and onwards, for thousands of repetitions. Maybe it loops back on itself, and forms a ring. Maybe there’s a kink in the chain, branches sprouting off in every direction. Imagine the most convoluted subway chart you can imagine, for the largest city imaginable, with each subway station stop being a carbon atom. Imagine the possibilities of shapes that could exist, and – keeping in mind that the shape of a molecule determines its function – you begin to understand the breathtaking scope of organic chemistry.
Plastics. Plastics are nothing more than very, very long chains of carbon atoms, all linked together by chemical bonds. Another word for plastics is polymers, and once you begin to understand that any long chain of carbon atoms can be considered a polymer, you have to include proteins (long chains of amino acids, which are carbon-containing molecules) as well as RNA and DNA (long chains of nucleotides, which are carbon-containing molecules). The chair you’re sitting in – I can practically guarantee that it’s a polymer. Oh, it’s wood? I’m sorry – but that’s still primarily made up of a (naturally occurring) polymer, one called cellulose. Take one look around you, at the objects within view. Count the plastic and wooden objects. If you want to understand how those function – if you really want to understand how those work – you’re going to need to study organic chemistry. Translate that into consumer choice, and you can start to make smarter purchasing decisions, once you have that organic chemistry knowledge. You’ll know which plastics are more wear-resistant. Which woods need chemical treatment to avoid rot, and which chemical treatment might be detrimental to your health (formaldehyde seepage), and just how detrimental that level really might be. Doesn’t that sound like important knowledge to possess? How many objects did you count when you took a look around you? I bet you gave up. Don’t worry – I did too. Plastics permeate and saturate our society. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a modern existence without them. How then, can you contemplate existing without knowing how to explain your surroundings?
Medications. Almost without exception – there are a handful of inorganic (non-carbon containing) drugs – medications are organic molecules. While the study of the interaction of these molecules with your body chemistry is the province of biochemistry, biochemistry is built on the foundation of organic chemistry. You can’t understand how a machine truly functions unless you understand what a nut and a bolt represent. Medications are no different. I’ll give you a prime example of how even just a basic level knowledge of organic chemistry can help you understand medications: morphine vs heroin. Heroin is nothing more than diacetyl morphine. The acetyl group is easily put on and taken off of the phenol groups present in morphine. The result? Something that is more fat-soluble (as the bare phenols are more hydrophilic than the acetylated versions), which means the molecule passes through the blood-brain barrier much more rapidly (which tends to exclude hydrophilic molecules), upon which cleavage (removal) of the acetyl groups leaves a rush of morphine in the brain. That’s just freshmen level organic chemistry, and already, you can explain why heroin is so addictive and so much more of a street-drug than plain morphine: you understand the nuts and bolts. You understand what a simple modification of the molecule means, and you can extrapolate those results to something meaningful for the molecule as a whole.
I’ve written articles before here on Associated Content about the games pharmaceutical companies play, charging up to five times as much for a drug as versus a competing source. They’re relying not on public education – something they supposedly support, with all of their friendly websites that try to educate the customer on their fabulous products – but on public ignorance. They’re relying on you not having the knowledge you need to make an educated decision, and are preying upon your fear of learning a subject – in this case, organic chemistry – to pad their pockets. You’re lying to yourself if you think it doesn’t happen all the time. It’s the score of all time: a vast populace that is undereducated about the goods they purchase. Make no mistake – this happens all the time. Have you ever asked yourself why there are so many extended-release medications on the market? Is it because they’re so much better than the alternatives? No – it’s because the original medication fell off-patent, and cheap generics became available, so now the company has to take that same exact molecule and package it in a shiny, fancy new way and charge brand-name prices, and hope that the public doesn’t have the smarts to realize that they’re being robbed. Robbed blind. In broad daylight. With a knowledge of organic chemistry, you can read deeper into the companies literature, and the published clinical studies, and be wise to these tricks. The American Medical Association recognizes approximately 40% of the American population as being on one type of medication or another. I’m afraid – deeply afraid – of discovering what percentage of the American population understands the chemistry behind that medication, of discovering what percentage of our nation has the scientific knowledge they need to make smart and informed choices.
And do you seriously think you can rely on that 90 second conversation with your HMO doctor to give you all the details?
That will have to be a topic for another time. For now, the take-home message is this: organic chemistry is part of our life. It is the chemistry of not only our lives, but also our lifestyles. If you go through life without a knowledge of this subject, you’re going through life deaf and dumb. It doesn’t have to be that way. Wake up America!