What is organic chemistry?

The term organic means a lot of things to a lot of people. If you listen to your hippie Aunt Sunshine, you’ve probably heard that “organic” refers to a way of growing food in a way that doesn’t involve pesticides, fertilizers, or bad vibes.


Fashion sense is also discouraged.

The term organic has other meanings, but I don’t feel like going into them because they’re pretty stupid.  Wikipedia, however, doesn’t have such qualms.


Once every hundred years, Wikipedia comes to life and takes the form of a nerd.

Understandably, as chemists we like to have a better understanding of what’s going on than the average person.  Let’s continue by figuring out…

What’s an organic compound?

In the chemical sense, organic compounds are those that contain carbon atoms.  There are only a few exceptions to this rule:

  • The carbonate ion:  If the only place a compound’s carbon can be found is in the carbonate ion (e.g. “lithium carbonate”), it’s not considered organic.
  • Oxides of carbon:  In other words, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide.
  • Elemental carbon:  Graphite, diamond, fullerenes, and graphenes aren’t organic.

Aside from that, compounds that contain carbon are organic.  Which is to say, the vast majority of known compounds are considered organic, because carbon can form long, complex chains and other elements tend not to do so.


The “n” at the bottom means that the polystyrene molecule can take the form of an infinitely long chain. Elements other than carbon don’t behave like this, which is why organic compounds outnumber the rest.

Are organic compounds related to other stuff that we call “organic”?

Yes.  But to understand this, we’ll need to go wandering off into a swamp.


Or as I like to call it, “nature’s dumpster.”

The defining feature of swamps is that they’re full of rotten dead stuff.  Lots of rotten dead stuff.  In fact, if you go to the swamp, you’ll find that the only things that aren’t rotten and dead are either “living and annoying” or “living and deadly.”  Which, in addition to the awful smell, is why most of us avoid the swamp.¹

It turns out that soil generally contains a lot of dead stuff, even if it’s not quite as abundant as in a swamp.  This dead garbage that permeates the outdoors has long been referred to as “organic”, as in “generated by an organism.”  All of these former organisms are made of carbon-containing compounds, so people started referring to carbon-containing compounds as “organic compounds.”  In reality, not all organic compounds are actually derived from formerly-living organisms, but the name has stuck and it’s not likely to change.

Is there such a thing as a “not-organic” compound?

Of course!  Except we call it an “inorganic compound”, because “not-organic” sounds kind of dumb.

If you look at a strict definition, organic compounds contain carbon and inorganic compounds don’t.  However, as with many things in the sciences, the line between the two is sometimes more blurry than you might expect.

For example, there exist such things as organometallic compounds, which are organic compounds and/or complexes that involve various metallic elements.  The presence of carbon makes these compounds organic, but the chemistry they do is heavily influenced by the inorganic metal atoms that are present.  As a result, both organic and inorganic chemists study organometallic compounds.²

Additionally, it’s important to understand that organic compounds don’t exist in magic little boxes.  For one organic compound to form another one, it has to interact with other organic compounds and various inorganic compounds.  To say that something is totally organic just doesn’t make sense.

But we do it anyway.  Go figure.

What is organic chemistry good for?

You’ve probably already guessed that organic chemistry must be good for something – otherwise nobody would go to the trouble of studying it.  Here are just a few of the wonderful things that organic chemistry has brought you:

  • Medicines:  Though there are some very effective medications consisting only of inorganic compounds (lithium carbonate, for example), most medications are complex organic compounds.  These compounds typically have fairly complex structures, which is why they’re good at interacting with your very complex body.

“Medication keeps my homicidal rage in check!”

  • Awesome food: Food contains a lot of added stuff (except for, ironically enough, “organic” foods.)  Organic compounds serve as food additives to improve flavor, shelf life, and appearance.  They also help to keep food from rotting on the shelves, which is something you’ll appreciate if you don’t get to the market very often.
  • Perfume: If you’re one of those stinky people who want to pretend that they’re not stinky, you use perfume of some kind.  Soaps, moisturizers, perfume, and cologne all contain complex mixes of organic compounds that are formulated with the aim of making you smell less awful.  Just think of the last time you were on a city bus – do you really want to know what those people smell like without the wonders of soap?

This woman just bought enough perfume to build her own gas chamber.

  • Gasoline:  Raw oil is awful, tarry, stinky stuff.  Before it can be put into your car, it has to be processed to make it into the awesomely flammable fuel you’re familiar with.  This is done by, wait for it, organic chemists!
  • DNA stuff:  All biochemistry is basically just complicated organic chemistry. In fact, I didn’t have to take biochemistry in college because the basic premise my school held was that if I understood organic chemistry, I’d have enough background to make sense of biochemistry.  I found this to be true, which is why I have created a horrible pit of biomutants in my backyard.

I named this one Fluffy.


  1. Personally, the lack of air-conditioning and presence of bugs keeps me from going outside except in case of emergency.  That and the fact that my neighbor is always watching my house.
  2. Some organometallic compounds are reactive enough that exposing them to air by squirting them out of a syringe causes the formation of a flamethrower.  However, it shouldn’t be surprising to hear that demos such as this have caused the deaths of researchers, so if you ever have the opportunity to do this, don’t.  (No source given because I don’t want you to try this).
  3. General note:  The joke about “medication keeping my homicidal rage in check” isn’t meant to make light of the mentally-ill.  It’s just a joke, and I think we can all agree that the vast majority of the mentally-ill are completely normal, functional members of society.

Image credits:

  • Hippie chick:  Image courtesy of Serge Bertasius Photography at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
  • Wikipedia personified:  Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
  • Polystyrene:  By Yikrazuul (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
  • Nature’s dumpster:  By Sten Porse (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.
  • Homicidal dude:  Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
  • Highly perfumed woman:  Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
  • Fluffy:  Image courtesy of Victor Habbick at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Webpage posted July 23, 2015

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