You are already a highly skilled organic chemist. As you read these words, your eyes are using an organic compound (retinal) to convert visible light into nerve impulses. When you picked up this book, your muscles were doing chemical reactions on sugars to give you the energy you needed. As you understand, gaps between your brain cells are being bridged by simple organic molecules (neuro transmitter amines) so that nerve impulses can be passed around your brain. And you did all that without consciously thinking about it. You do not yet understand these processes in your mind as well as you can carry them out in your brain and body. You are not alone there. No organic chemist, however brilliant, understands the detailed chemical working of the human mind or body very well.
Organic chemistry began as a tentative attempt to understand the chemistry of life. It has grown into the confident basis of vast multinational industries that feed, clothe, and cure millions of people without their even being aware of the role of chemistry in their lives. Chemists cooperate with physicists and mathematicians to understand how molecules behave and with biologists to understand how molecules determine life processes. The development of these ideas is already a revelation at the beginning of the twenty-first century, but is far from complete. We aim not to give you the measurements of the skeleton of a dead science but to equip you to understand the conflicting demands of an adolescent one.
Like all sciences, chemistry has a unique place in our pattern of understanding of the universe. It is the science of molecules. But organic chemistry is something more. It literally creates itself as it grows. Of course we need to study the molecules of nature both because they are interesting in their own right and because their functions are important to our lives. Organic chemistry often studies life by making new molecules that give information not available from the molecules actually present in living things.
This creation of new molecules has given us new materials such as plastics, new dyes to colour our clothes, new perfumes to wear, new drugs to cure diseases. Some people think that these activities are unnatural and their products dangerous or unwholesome. But these new molecules are built by humans from other molecules found on earth using the skills inherent in our natural brains. Birds build nests; man makes houses. Which is unnatural? To the organic chemist this is a meaningless distinction. There are toxic compounds and nutritious ones, stable compounds and reactive ones—but there is only one type of chemistry: it goes on both inside our brains and bodies and also in our ﬂasks and reactors, born from the ideas in our minds and the skill in our hands. We are not going to set ourselves up as moral judges in any way. We believe it is right to try and understand the world about us as best we can and to use that understanding creatively.