Sciency Words: Organic (An A to Z Challenge Post)

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.

18 thoughts on “Sciency Words: Organic (An A to Z Challenge Post)

  1. Why are people so determined to make Pluto a planet again? It really doesn’t make sense. We need to a term to describe what the IAU currently calls planets, and that’s the term planet, and Pluto doesn’t qualify. Simple as that. It never should have been from the beginning, we just didn’t have the data to make that realization obvious. I recognize that the term dwarf planet isn’t all that sensical, which is why I think we should use planetoid as a broader step up from planet that doesn’t include the whole “clearing their orbit” part.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I half agree with you. There’s a parallel between Pluto’s story and the story of Ceres, which went from being a planet to an asteroid and then a dwarf planet. It’s worth acknowledging that Pluto is very different from the eight currently recognized planets.

      However, I’m not totally satisfied with the I.A.U.’s current definition of planet, and there’s a new proposal that I like better. But we’ll get into that more tomorrow.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. In reference to the urine synthesis… ewwwww. (laugh)

    Pluto should be a planet, grandfather the poor guy in if necessary. I can’t argue science, not gonna try I’m not a scientist or in anyway qualified to do so. What I can say is that while some things may need to change as we discover more about the solar system Pluto should retain a better status then some fly by orbiting nothing rock.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, we’ll get into the Pluto thing tomorrow. There are some who’d argue that being the first of the dwarf planets sort of made Pluto even more special.

      With the synthesis of urea, that was my first reaction when I heard about it: ewww. I get why it was such an important discovery, but I kind of wish Wohler had discovered how to make something else first.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for letting me know. I’ve had some weird issues with the A to Z page, so I’m not too surprised. Reposting the link didn’t change anything, so I’m not sure what the solution is.


    1. A chemist friend I used to know would complain about organic food a lot. She’d say that almost everything we eat has carbon in it, so almost everything we eat is organic. As I understand it, though, the word means something very different to a nutritionist than to a chemist.


  3. Organic chemistry (or chemistry overall) has never been my forte, but I’ve come to think of “organic” as denoting complexity, the forming of long chains of complex polymers that eventually lead to the molecular machinery of life. Carbon’s chemical flexibility plus abundance seems to make it uniquely suited its central role in that complexity.

    But maybe the complexity of organic chemistry is simply the complexity we choose to focus on.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s no doubt in my mind that carbon is the most chemically flexible element, and it totally makes sense to have a whole subfield of chemistry devoted to studying it.

      If I could go back in time, though, I’d strongly encourage early chemists to give carbon chemistry some other name. The word organic is misleading. Carbon is essential for life (or at least life as we know it) but carbon’s busy doing other things too.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hmmm. Maybe “carbon chemistry” or “carbonics”.

        “Organic chemistry” seems like those other concepts we’ve discussed: vitalism, acid, or planet, labels we coined before we understood the relevant phenomena, old categories that don’t map well (if at all) to our current understandings.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I had a pretty rough time in chemistry, and I’ve only recently come to understand that most of my confusion was about terminology. I think a few etymology lessons about these sorts of words would do chemistry students a lot of good.


  4. I have overheard more than a few chemists arguing that all vegetables are ‘organic’ using this logic. It made me chuckle, but also sort of despise them for making fun of someone who may not have had the same access to education as them. Oh, English language, you’re so tricky.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As I understand it, the word organic means something different to nutritionists than it does to chemists. So while labeling some vegetables organic seems a bit odd to me, I don’t really see it as wrong.

      But you bring up a really good point: judging people for language usage can easily get tangled up with other forms of social judgement. That’s really something I think we should all be a little more aware of.

      Liked by 1 person

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