Organic Chemistry Study Tips

By James Ashenhurst

“Compare Organic Chemistry To A Movie…”

Last updated: September 12th, 2022 |

OK, well maybe not this kind of movie

Love this quote, from Organic Chemistry 1 as a Second Language by David R. Klein (fuller review to come) on organic chemistry and memorization.

You probably know at least one person who has seen one movie more than five times and can quote every line by heart. How can this person do that? It’s not because he or she tried to memorize the movie. The first time you watch a movie, you learn the plot. After the second time, you understand why individual scenes are necessary to develop the plot. After the third time, you understand why the dialogue was necessary to develop each scene. After the fourth time, you are quoting many of the lines by heart. Never at any time did you make an effort to memorize the lines. You know them because they make sense  in the grand scheme of the plot. If I were to give you a screenplay for a movie and ask you to memorize as much as you can in 10 hours, you would probably not get very far into it. If, instead, I put you in a room for 10 hours and played the same movie over again five times, you would know most of the movie by heart, without even trying. You would know everyone’s names, the order of the scenes, much of the dialogue, and so on.

Organic chemistry is exactly the same. It’s not about memorization. It’s about making sense of the plot, the scenes, and the individual concepts that make up our story

If you had to draw an analogy between a film and a reaction in organic chemistry, how do they map? Here’s my two cents.

Plot – the bonds broken and formed

Characters – the atoms involved in the bond-forming and bond-breaking, with their “personalities” represented by how electron-rich or how electron poor they are. The key “motivation” of the characters is that opposite charges attract, and electrons flow from “rich” to “poor”.

Setting – in cases where the reaction could happen at multiple sites, it’s important to understand why it happens where it happens. In organic chemistry we call this “regioselectivity”. Markovnikoff vs. anti-markovnikoff addition to alkenes is an example.

A second aspect to “setting” is in understanding the stereochemistry of a reaction – that is, why it produces the stereochemical result that it does. Not applicable to all reactions, but many.

Lines – the “lines” are the reaction arrows that show the movement of electrons and the modification of charges.

Quoting it by heart – when you fully understand a reaction, you know the “plot” of a reaction flows naturally from the motivations of the “characters” in their particular “setting”,  and describe how the plot moves forward by writing out the correct sequence of “lines”. Furthermore, you even can predict what will happen when this “setting” is changed.

It’s an imperfect analogy, I confess – there’s probably other people out there who could do a better job in translation! Thoughts?


Comment section

12 thoughts on ““Compare Organic Chemistry To A Movie…”

  1. I’ve heard reactions compared to crime scenes, and your focus being to understand the motive and opportunity. I like that analogy too, but I think this analogy is more detailed and makes more sense. I suppose you could incorporate the two by giving the movie a genre, like a murder mystery.

  2. well i also think chemistry course should be more unless be treating as a practically work alone than reading it theory, here is the case that we learn things that we have never seen with our naked eyes so the scientist has to do something to make the science course more attractive to students

  3. I’d like to say it’s more of a computer game.
    It has all the elements of a movie, plot, characters, dialogue… but you can control it?

    In fact, while learning Chemistry I’ve often thought it would be SO MUCH EASIER if they could put the characteristics in to some sort of game.

    You get direct control and your actions have conequences. It’s gotta be a good way to learn without trying to.

    1. Hey that’s a very cool idea but I just don’t think anybody invested any interest outside their own comment to give you some credit. I thought about it for a second and visualized the cartoon lab with all of the glassware, chemicals, burners, etc. Then just play around. You can have different amounts of detailed measurements for the advanced chemistry lover. But you know what I dont think the powers that be are to cool with advancing American youth and science
      If you look back in the 50s it was common place for the average American household to have a small organic chem lab in their garage to make various compounds for use around the house and garden. Also during that time real extensive & quite professional chemistry sets were marketed to kids for cheap, almost every kid had one. They sell vintage ones on ebay but then it stopped. Still have chem sets to buy with very few chemicals and none of the cool experiments. After it stopped this kid chemistry marketing jumped from country to country. It was like Russia after us. I know Germany was huge for kids chemistry in the 70s. And if you look at the workforce how technology moves. They may say we need kids to be more interested in the sciences but in reality they make it less accessible and harder for a kid to get equipment that isnt mastered before the end of the week. They dont stay excited enough and move on to what there is plenty of new material to cover, video games or whatever. Crazy
      Great idea regardless.

  4. I agree with this analogy. I will point out, however, that the typical testing methods we use tend to make students think less about the “plot>character>setting>lines”, and force them instead to just try to memorize certain reactions. I was a chemistry major and it seems to come almost naturally to me, but I knew plenty of students (especially pre-meds) who weren’t as invested in the science and just needed to get a good grade. Like many students, their priority was getting a high test score. Answering a certain number of questions that you know will cover a certain range of reaction types, in a limited time, does not really motivate a student to learn the fundamentals as we probalby would like them too.
    I don’t really know how to improve on this, the straightforward solution would be more frequent tests that take more time but chemistry is typically already a pretty brutal course when it comes to testing, and of course the GRE and MCAT are both structured in exactly the wrong way (in my opinion). Sadly I think this will continue to be a problem until the science community can somehow influence these big testing systems to change. Well, good luck and thanks for writing this blog.

    1. One of the deep problems in science teaching is how to motivate those who are not naturally predisposed towards curiosity

  5. I think that sp3-sp3 catalytic cross-couplings are identical to the Star Wars prequels (Episodes I to III). We waited in silence for decades, we invested so much hope, our entire childhood was at stake, and on the day when they finally arrived, they revealed themselves as the anticlimax of our life.

    1. So true. It didn’t turned out as we imagined. My own experience with the Ni(COD) catalyzed versions was extremely unsatisfying.

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