Today’s post is a special A to Z Challenge edition of Sciency Words, an ongoing series here on Planet Pailly where we take a look at some interesting science or science related term so we can all expand our scientific vocabularies together. In today’s post, O is for:
Sometimes scientists name things before they fully understand them. Such is the case with the entire field of organic chemistry.
Organic chemicals are called organic because, it was once thought, they could only be produced by living organisms. There was something almost mystical, almost magical about living things, scientists believed. They spoke of a mysterious “vital energy” without which certain chemical reactions simply could not occur.
Then in 1828, Friedrich Wöhler synthesized urea–a key ingredient in urine–in a test tube. That sounds kind of gross, but it was a monumental achievement in the history of science.
Sort of like how Newton showed that the same laws of physics which apply here on Earth also apply to the planets and stars, Wöhler’s urea synthesis demonstrated that the same laws of chemistry apply to both living and non-living matter.
The group of chemicals that scientists had been calling “organic” do have at least one thing in common: carbon. They all incorporate carbons atoms, typically carbon atoms bonded to other carbon atoms or to hydrogen atoms (certain simple carbon compounds like CO2 are generally not considered organic).
Perhaps some other name would be more appropriate for these complex carbon molecules, but scientists had been calling them organic chemicals and talking about organic chemistry for a while. The name had already stuck.
I suppose we could rationalize the modern usage of organic by saying we organisms need organic chemicals to live; but thanks to Wöhler, we now know organic chemicals do not need us organisms in order to exist.
Next time on Sciency Words: A to Z, let’s see if we can get Pluto’s planet status back.