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A Crash Course in Organic Chemistry: Jakob Magolan (Transcript)

Jakob Magolan at TED Talks

Here is the full transcript of organic chemistry professor Jakob Magolan’s interesting talk: A Crash Course in Organic Chemistry @ TEDxUIdaho May 2017 conference.


Listen to the MP3 Audio: A crash course in organic chemistry – Jakob Magolan


Jakob Magolan – Associate Professor of Organic Chemistry, University of Idaho

I’d like you to ask yourself, what do you feel when you hear the words “organic chemistry?” What comes to mind?

There is a course offered at nearly every university, and it’s called Organic Chemistry, and it is a grueling, heavy introduction to the subject, a flood of content that overwhelms students, and you have to ace it if you want to become a doctor or a dentist or a veterinarian.

And that is why so many students perceive this science like this – as an obstacle in their path, and they fear it and they hate it and they call it a weed-out course. What a cruel thing for a subject to do to young people, weed them out.

And this perception spread beyond college campuses long ago. There is a universal anxiety about these two words.

I happen to love this science, and I think this position in which we have placed it is inexcusable. It’s not good for science, and it’s not good for society, and I don’t think it has to be this way. And I don’t mean that this class should be easier. It shouldn’t.

But your perception of these two words should not be defined by the experiences of premed students who frankly are going through a very anxious time of their lives.

So I’m here today, because I believe that a basic knowledge of organic chemistry is valuable, and I think that it can be made accessible to everybody, and I’d like to prove that to you today. Would you let me try?

[Audience: Yeah!]

All right, let’s go for it.

Here I have one of these overpriced EpiPens. Inside it is a drug called epinephrine. Epinephrine can restart the beat of my heart, or it could stop a life-threatening allergic reaction. An injection of this right here will do it.

It would be like turning the ignition switch in my body’s fight-or-flight machinery. My heart rate, my blood pressure would go up so blood could rush to my muscles My pupils would dilate. I would feel a wave of strength.

Epinephrine has been the difference between life and death for many people. This is like a little miracle that you can hold in your fingers.

Chemical structure of epinephrine

Here is the chemical structure of epinephrine. This is what organic chemistry looks like. It looks like lines and letters. No meaning to most people.

I’d like to show you what I see when I look at that picture. I see a physical object that has depth and rotating parts, and it’s moving. We call this a compound or a molecule, and it is 26 atoms that are stitched together by atomic bonds. The unique arrangement of these atoms gives epinephrine its identity, but nobody has ever actually seen one of these, because they’re very small, so we’re going to call this an artistic impression, and I want to explain to you how small this is.

In here, I have less than half a milligram of it dissolved in water. It’s the mass of a grain of sand. The number of epinephrine molecules in here is one quintillion. That’s 18 zeroes. That number is hard to visualize. Seven billion of us on this planet? Maybe 400 billion stars in our galaxy? You’re not even close.

If you wanted to get into the right ballpark, you’d have to imagine every grain of sand on every beach, under all the oceans and lakes, and then shrink them all so they fit in here.

Epinephrine is so small we will never see it, not through any microscope ever, but we know what it looks like, because it shows itself through some sophisticated machines with fancy names like “nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers.”

Epinephrine molecules

So visible or not, we know this molecule very well. We know it is made of four different types of atoms: hydrogen, carbon, oxygen and nitrogen. These are the colors we typically use for them. Everything in our universe is made of little spheres that we call atoms. There’s about a hundred of these basic ingredients, and they’re all made from three smaller particles: protons, neutrons, electrons.

We arrange these atoms into this familiar table. We give them each a name and a number. But life as we know it doesn’t need all of these, just a smaller subset, just these. And there are four atoms in particular that stand apart from the rest as the main building blocks of life, and they are the same ones that are found in epinephrine: hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen.

Now what I tell you next is the most important part. When these atoms connect to form molecules, they follow a set of rules. Hydrogen makes one bond, oxygen always makes two, nitrogen makes three and carbon makes four. That’s it. HONC — one, two, three, four.


If you can count to four, and you can misspell the word “honk,” you’re going to remember this for the rest of your lives.

Now here I have four bowls with these ingredients. We can use these to build molecules. Let’s start with epinephrine.

Now, these bonds between atoms, they’re made of electrons. Atoms use electrons like arms to reach out and hold their neighbors. Two electrons in each bond, like a handshake, and like a handshake, these things are not permanent. They can let go of one atom and grab another. That’s what we call a chemical reaction, when atoms exchange partners and make new molecules.

The backbone of epinephrine is made mostly of carbon atoms, and that’s common. Carbon is life’s favorite structural building material, because it makes a good number of handshakes with just the right grip strength. That’s why we define organic chemistry as the study of carbon molecules.

Now, if we build the smallest molecules that we can think of that follow our rules, they highlight our rules, and they have familiar names: water, ammonia and methane, H20 and NH3 and CH4.

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