Why learn OChem (w/o taking a class)?

Q: How can I learn organic chemistry without taking a class?
I am not a pre-med student, nor am I a chemistry major. I am studying environmental engineering, and organic chem is not required. However, for my own edification I would like a crash course that would make me understand key concepts. Can anyone recommend a book, or list of topics I should learn to achieve my goal? Thanks.
A: This is interesting as I was just thinking about how organic chemistry is really about …
This is interesting as I was just thinking about how organic chemistry is really about electrons and their movement. Even at this time, with all that we know, I remain skeptical of what we really know and my ability to change this knowledge. I am reminded of the parable of the blind men and the elephant.

    And so these men of Indostan
    Disputed loud and long,
    Each in his own opinion
    Exceeding stiff and strong,
    Though each was partly in the right,
    And all were in the wrong!
    So oft in theologic wars,
    The disputants, I ween,
    Rail on in utter ignorance
    Of what each other mean,
    And prate about an Elephant
    Not one of them has seen!
    (by John Godfrey Saxe)

Without going on about the electron (though it is really what this is all about), let me say that organic chemistry has only a few topics that play importance to the general public or to the questioner. I don’t think interpretation of spectra, IUPAC nomenclature, or stereochemistry (conformational analysis, axial, equatorial, etc.) are important.

I do think why drugs work would be a top item. In order to answer that, we can go from superficial to reactions. If I were teaching the general public, I would take the perspective of simply what do drugs look like and how they may be mimics of biologically important compounds. The next step from that is the manner in which the atomic structures contribute to the biological activity. Now we are bordering on reactions.

This is where I spent a career. I never found any difference between biological activity and reaction mechanisms. They were fundamentally the same. How do molecules interact? Chemical reactions are part of the scale of how this transpires. If you want to really know organic chemistry, I would argue you should learn reaction mechanisms. This is the current frontier of organic chemistry or should I say biology. It is becoming harder to distinguish. Biologist are increasingly interested in organic chemistry and organic chemists are increasingly studying biology.

Let me take a step back here. For many students, they see reactions mechanisms as the hurdle to learning organic chemistry. A reaction mechanism is simply a logical explanation of how or why reactions take place. It is like knowing that HBr ionizes in water because the electrons of water are more available to be protonated that the electrons of a negatively charged bromide anion. If this explanation makes sense, then so can all of organic chemistry.

If I can teach organic chemistry to a high school student (been there, did that), then I can teach organic chemistry to someone without taking the class. Check out my book, A Guide to Organic Chemistry.