Org Prep Daily

February 27, 2007

Studying from textbooks

Filed under: Uncategorized — milkshake @ 12:37 am

sliva5.jpg Credit: Jiri Sliva 

Trying to study from organic chemistry textbook can induce anxiety and overload. One should focus on things he enjoys rather than trying to memorize everything or he will end up fogged out and worried about being inadequate for the job. Chemistry is supposed to be a fun thing to do, not a drudgery – when reading the organic chemistry textbook for your own curiosity (rather than for the exam)  it is best to flip through the chapters while trying to find the interesting bits. It helps to have your mind focused on a particular problem – for example, “what would be the best set of reactions that one can use to synthesize Ecstasy from safrol or piperonal?” or “Can I put together a short retro-synthetic analysis of morphine?”

I would encourage any organic chemistry student to get a manual for organic synthesis labs- something that has procedures much like OrgSyn – and after reading those experimental procedures to close the eyes and dream about doing the experiments. I had a translation of an old German book “Organikum”. It was a very dated book even 25 years ago – but for me it was more helpful than the regular introductory textbook. It had chapters named “Friedel-Crafts”, “Diels-Alder” etc. Each chapter started with mechanism and general description intro that was followed by the experimental procedure (usually in two or three versions, to be used depending on reactivity and sensitivity of the starting material) and tables and tables of molecules that were actually made with these procedures, the yields, the melting and boiling points. It was great fun to learn not only about reaction mechanisms – but also about how the stuff is done and what practical complications can happen during the synthesis 

Any book or journal or chemical catalog that produces interest is helpful. It is possible to cram lots of information from a textbook to pass the exam. But if the information is not anchored in true interest, about something dear to you – if it remains isolated or does not get used for anything that you enjoy – then you will forget it all rather quickly.

Also, one should not get too religious about what he is learning in chemistry even if the reactions in the book can look arcane or threateningly complicated. It takes no genius to do chemistry – it was put together by regular blokes. Sure, some of them were very smart but many of them were quite normal types that were sufficiently organized and persistant and eventually got good results – but all of them were doing chemistry for years, so gradually they got good at it.


About not studying from textbooks: A friend of mine (a tiny quiet and unassuming type) was taking engineering classes. She was born into a family of engineers – her dad was designing engines for military planes and her mom was also a technical type. At the end of the second semester they had a big oral exam that everybody was very afraid of. My friend was worried about it too – but luckily for her the exam question she got was about turbines. Turbines were a friendly territory to her and she did not hesitate – she outlined the turbine general principles and progressed naturally into their application in turboprop engines and from turboprops she went onto the jet engines. With the ease of someone describing her CD collection she was explaining the merits and problems of various designs and then went also into the choice of alloys, methods used for machining and finishing the engine parts and the problems related to maintenance and repair. The professor’s jaw was slowly dropping lower and lower as his eyes were bugging out (the aircraft turbine lecture went on for quite some time).  At the end of it the professor said: “Uh, I must ask you – because we have some faculty members here that should, uh, like to use your sources in their classes – please where did you get this all from??” She replied shyly: “When I was a little girl, my dad used to tell me bedside stories, about aircraft engines…”


  1. Good God, man! Don’t just sit there, marry her!

    Comment by Uncle Al — February 27, 2007 @ 1:39 pm

  2. The story has a sad ending – I met her when she was already married to a chemist and had two kids with him. He would keep her at home with kids (one of the kids had special needs), and he would boss her around and constantly remind her how stupid/screwy/useless/dumb/worthless she was – and she started believing that crap and was worrying all the time that she would do something wrong again to make him upset.

    I guess some jerks like to vent their frustrations about their life and enjoy putting others down, to feel better about themselves. Their spouses usually provide the convenient target.

    Comment by milkshake — February 28, 2007 @ 2:28 am

  3. Yet another reason I don’t intend to marry…

    Comment by Ψ*Ψ — February 28, 2007 @ 10:10 am

  4. The jerk is married already so you shouldn’t worry too much.
    Living with somebody in a tiny place for a year or two and sharing finances should give one a pretty good idea about problems with the other person – whereas loneliness can give bad councel about someone dear to you (the best way to go about long-distance relationships is to end them).

    Comment by milkshake — February 28, 2007 @ 11:10 am

  5. Ψ*Ψ:

    I’m with you! I knew a great guy who was married to a woman who constantly nagged and berated him. Told him how worthless he was and how he was lucky to have her. Poor man.

    Another reason I don’t intend to marry.

    Comment by Just a guy — March 1, 2007 @ 10:18 am

  6. I’m going to have my organic students read what you wrote about learning organic chemistry. You make some very good points. There are very few things in organic that are very hard to understand. So much can be boiled down to a few simple principles (sterics and electronics). What makes organic difficult is the HUGE amount of things there are. In one lecture, I can cover 4 or 5 related but different reactions. The concepts just keep piling up. If students don’t or can’t keep up, it is a very tough class. For students who are struggling, I suggest something you alluded to. I tell them to not worry about learning everything, but pick one or two things we cover and learn it very well. It’s amazing that students who learn hydroboration-oxiation reactions very well, for example, gain a better understanding of things like oxymercuration-demercuration or hydrohalogenation and other reactions with alkenes. Learning basic principles has a trickle down effect, and it makes organic chemistry much more enjoyable.

    As for lousy husbands, no doubt, those assholes are out there. Don’t ever marry anyone who doesn’t want you to pursue your dreams or ambitions.

    Comment by Chemgeek — March 3, 2007 @ 12:11 am

  7. “Organic Chemistry” by Clayden, Greeves, Warren and Wothers is the best textbook ever.

    Comment by Wavefunction — March 14, 2007 @ 2:06 pm

  8. Heard a lot about Organikum. My boss has a copy, but he’s German… Where did you get your English translation? Hand-translated, or is it in print?

    Comment by drew — March 18, 2007 @ 12:45 pm

  9. I had a Czech translation. The book really is not worth much now – it was seriously dated even back in early eighties when I was learning organic chemistry from it. But I liked the format of the book and I wonder if there is anything similar available in English.

    Comment by milkshake — March 18, 2007 @ 5:15 pm

  10. Organikum is not dated. There are new editions, like this one:


    Comment by ChristianPFC — August 22, 2013 @ 3:43 am

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