Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:
At some point when I was a little kid, I discovered that gasoline doesn’t smell terrible. In fact, it has an almost sweet aroma to it. I got in a lot of trouble for this because, for obvious reasons, my parents didn’t want me sniffing gas fumes. But still, that subtly sweet smell is there, and it’s caused by a chemical known as benzene.
Apparently I’m not the only person to take note of benzene’s smell. German chemist Augustus Wilhelm Hofmann is credited with the first usage of the word “aromatic” to describe benzene, along with a whole host of other sweet-smelling chemicals.
Hofmann seems to have realized not only that these chemicals smelled similar but also that they had similar chemical compositions. “Of this series,” Hofmann wrote in 1855, “few members are at present known, but the group of aromatic acids is itself very imperfect and limited.” In other words, Hofmann predicted the existence of more “aromatic” chemicals that should fit the pattern.
And more chemicals of this series were later discovered, and we now know what they really have in common: a flattened, ring-like chemical structure, as pictured below:
As an adult, I know better than to sniff gasoline, and as an artist I know better than to sniff my art supplies. But the xylene used as a solvent in some pens and markers does have that same vaguely sweet aroma as benzene. However, not all of the chemicals we call “aromatic” smell so nice, or smell at all. It’s the flattened, ring-like structure that defines aromaticity today. The odor is no longer considered relevant.
You might be wondering then why we still call these chemicals aromatic, if their aromas aren’t important. This seems to be another case of scientists naming something before they really understood it. The same thing happened with the word organic. The term was used so often in scientific literature and became so deeply ingrained in the scientific lexicon that we’re now unable to change it.
The ring-like structures in aromatic chemicals are incredibly strong and unlikely to break apart during chemical reactions. That makes them really good structural components for the large, complex molecules that make life possible here on Earth—and may have once made life possible on Mars. But we’ll talk more about that next week!