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How To Learn Enough Chemistry

brettl writes "In trying to read technical articles related to the field, I find that I do not have nearly enough chemistry background to keep up with many of the discussions. Is there any way to learn this without going back to school for an organic chemistry class?"

brettl continues:

I'm sure it sounds arrogant to think that I could just pick this up (I realize that most of the authors spent 7+ years learning the chemistry they use in these articles), but it's fascinating stuff and I just can't afford the classwork currently. So alternatives are greatly appreciated.

14 Responses to “How To Learn Enough Chemistry”

  1. qftconnor Says:

    Second-hand advice…

    I'll pass on the advice I received from an older grad student on about the second day after I started grad school. I was sitting at my desk, studying lecture notes for a course, and he dropped a book on my desk and said (I'm paraphrasing), "Never mind that crap. If you really want to learn the subject, do problems." (The book turned out to be Constantinescu and Magyari, Problems in Quantum Mechanics.) I followed the advice, and did every problem in the book, and then every problem in a lot of other books. Whenever I saw this guy, which was just about every day, he'd say to me, "Are you doing problems? Do problems." I'm convinced it's the best way, and maybe the only way, to really learn a subject. I still learn that way, if, for example, I need to pick up a new calculational technique or some new math, provided I can find a source of good problems (always a challenge). Want to learn general relativity? Lightman, Press, Price, and Teukolsky (Problem Book in Relativity and Gravitation) is more valuable than Misner, Thorne and Wheeler, in my opinion. I could give other examples. I acedmy qualifying exams (several days of back-to-back written exams) thanks to this advice; some of my classmates didn't, and were forced to leave grad school. Doing a dissertation and doing professional-level research have been just like doing problems (at least for me), except you get to make up the problem yourself, and finding the answer is no longer a matter of a few days with pencil and paper. It's even morefun.

    So, to learn org chem, I'd recommend focusing on finding a book with good problems and a good solution manual. As an undergrad I took two semesters of org chem. The text was John McMurry's Organic Chemistry, and there's a good solution manual by Susan McMurry. Take an hour each evening and do as many end-of-chapter problems as you can finish, then check your answers. If you don't like McMurry, I saw some possibles when I searched for title: "Problems and Solutions", subject: Organic Chemistry, on Amazon. Just find a source of problems, and do problems. Are you doing problems? Do problems.

  2. Morgaine Says:

    Re:Second-hand advice…

    Qftconnor gives absolutely excellent advice here.

    In my student days I discovered a little bit of natural afinity for one or two subjects, and in those areas, doing problems greatly increased fluidity and confidence. Even more important though, in secondary subjects that initially gave me trouble (I remember control theory vividly), I always found that success was directly related to the number of problems done, because solving problems creates insight, and that's the key to real learning.

    Then later I used to lecture on topics from electrical engineering and computer science, and the students that did well were always those that participated in the problem solving sessions.

    While not conclusive (sorry), I very much endorse problem solving as a good way of learning things!

    I'm sure it sounds arrogant to think that I could just pick this up …

    Absolutely not!!!! Just the opposite, it sounds very hopeful and constructive. Not many subject areas are way beyond the understanding of ordinary mortals (:-), and chemistry is certainly not one of them. Go for it! And good luck. :-)

  3. brettl Says:

    Then there is hope!

    Thanks for the positive response and advice! You guys give a "mere mortal" hope!

  4. Anonymous Coward Says:

    Re:Then there is hope!

    So here's an idea: I could go to the bookstore and pick up "Schaum's Outline of Chemistry" and go through it. Is that a good way to do problems? Should I be looking for tutorial software that would walk me through problems and quiz me automatically? I was quite disappointed by the chemistry section of the edutainment software of KDE. I installed SuSE, thinking it would have great built-in applications, and they are not thrilling.

  5. Anonymous Coward Says:

    My advice…

    Find out what "enough" chemistry means to you. Come up with a list of questions that you are mystified about. THEN ASK A CHEMIST. Really, how much chemistry do you think you need to know? There are plenty of chemists out there that are willing to answer (simple) questions… Working organic chemistry problems seems like the worst approach for someone who might not have an aptitude for chemistry. I assume there is a reason why your chemistry background is lacking.. Memorizing organic chemistry reactions is not everyone's cup of tea… I think it would be more enjoyable to meet a chemist and get a discussion going.

  6. qftconnor Says:

    Re:Then there is hope!

    So here's an idea: I could go to the bookstore and pick up "Schaum's Outline of Chemistry" and go through it. Is that a good way to do problems?

    "Schaum's Outline of Chemistry" seems to focus on general chem, not organic. If that's what you want to learn, then it's a place to start. Schaum also has an "Outline of Organic Chemistry", which might be more to the point. I generally find Schaum's books clearly written, but the problems are very routine and soon become dull. I might point out that general chem and organic are quite different in their focus. General is more quantitative, often focusing on thermodynamic things like the gas laws (ideal, van der Waals, etc.), elementary kinetics, an elementary description of bonding, etc. Organic is usually concerned with problems of how to build molecules with a limited repetory of synthetic reagents – what a physicist would call an inverse problem, and chemists call retrosynthetic analysis. So it's very qualitative. General is always listed as a prerequisite to organic, but I don't really think it's necessary. So you could give Schaum's a try, but if you don't like it, give up on the book, not on the subject.

    I can't comment on chemistry tutorial software, because I don't know anything about it. There are undoubtedly good tutorials somewhere on the Web. Maybe someone else can recommend some good educational software…?

  7. Anonymous Coward Says:

    Re:Second-hand advice…

    that is really good advice. i spend my days as an undergraduate reading books, then think i can do the problems based purely on theory, which just never works.

    i just became a math major recently and can tell you right now i am completely fucked every time i have a real analysis test or quiz because i can't do the problems fast enough. if i just did the problems all the time life would be much easier.

  8. RobertBradbury Says:

    The problem isn't clear

    Are you trying to practice chemistry or just enjoy reading about it?

    I've got 3 quarters of inorganic chem and 2 quarters of organic chem background and I'd guess that probably 70% or so of that isn't relevant to nanotech. More helpful is the 3 quarters of biochem and subsequent courses in molecular biology. But I think you can get most of the chemistry you need from the first couple of chapters in the biochem books.

    I would disagree with the "do the problems" perspective unless you seriously intend to practice chemistry. The reason that I never completed a 3rd quarter of organic chemistry was due to the emphasis on the memorization of reactions and methods. We now have retrosynthesis programs that know many more reactions and methods than one could ever memorize — so there isn't any point to learning the information.

    Here is a concept: "What Google knows one should never bother learning." Where the "do the problems" approach is useful is with respect to teaching you how to think about solving a problem.


  9. brettl Says:


    I don't know what I need. I guess the point is that I come from a liberal arts background (although I did do Chem I and 2 semesters of Calculus) and I am trying to read these technical papers and books. The pictures are pretty, and I know the difference between carbon and hydrogen; but that's pretty much all I see when I'm looking at these assembler explanations and related discussion of nanowidgets. I'd like to understand a bit more. I thought that learning some general organic chemistry might help.

    I guess the discussion really should be what hard science should an English major learn if he wants to understand what's going on, wants to get into this field, and can't afford to go back to school for another year?

    And although Google is a great place to go for answers when you know what you're looking for, I wouldn't be able to find the steps from my knowledge to the understanding of one of those journal papers with both hands and a flashlight!

  10. qftconnor Says:


    I guess the discussion really should be what hard science should an English major learn if he wants to understand what's going on, wants to get into this field, and can't afford to go back to school for another year?

    This is a different question from the one with which we started. I thought you were asking: "How can I learn enough organic chemistry to read the professional literature with comprehension, without attending formal classes?" I have no particular desire to debate educational theory with Robert, but I still think my answer is a viable approach, and more solid than trying to look things up on an ad hoc basis. I doubt that that approach will ever generate much insight.

    If what you really want is a basic background in Drexlerian nanotech, start by trying to read Nanosystems. Probably you'll soon run into things you don't understand. That's not surprising: Nanosystems is essentially a thesis, and it synthesizes information from many fields, with often minimal (or no) derivation of the material. When you run into a stumper, you can try Robert's db search approach. Another option is to post your technical question here. I don't know how the Lords of Nanodot would feel about this becoming (in part) a discussion forum for Nanosystems, but I bet many people here would be willing to take a whack at relatively specific technical questions (such as, "Where does Eq. x on page m come from?" or "Is assumption A on page m really justified in this case? Why?" or even "What the heck does Drexler mean when he says such-and-such?"). Probably we'd all learn from such a discussion.

    But that doesn't quite answer your question. The short answer is, I don't know of any sure way to get into a technical profession without formal certification by a school – programming and IT are among the few areas where this seems to be possible. (I've met IT people with degrees in just about every possible field – even a few, surprise, comp sci majors.) If you really want to work in nanotech, in the sense of doing research, then I think you need to plan on going back to school. Sorry about that. There are, of course, people doing "research-like activity" in this field, as in all fields, but their papers don't appear in the serious professional journals (PR, JACS, etc.), and they're ignored by genuine researchers.

    Maybe someone else will have a more palatable suggestion.

  11. RobertBradbury Says:


    The approach (doing the problems or perhaps taking the courses) is valid if one is trying to be a professional.

    However, in this specific case, which might be generalized, is how the heck does a person with relatively little science background (an "average" joe or jane) get a handle on nanotech and perhaps be able to form semi-informed opinions. I've filed a submission for nanodot about how completely wrong the press got the recent reports of a self-replicating virus. Science, be it molecular biology or computer science, seems to require knowledge of some fundamental concepts. Perhaps what we need is a book, "Nanotechnology for dummies…"??? (no offense).

    I don't think nanodot management would be opposed to open discussion of questions of a specific nature in Nanosystems or other technical documents. So I think people should feel free to open it up — if Google or the community doesn't know we can probably at least get you to the edge of the envelope.


  12. brettl Says:


    Thanks for the options, and yes, I think that if not "Nanotech for dummies", at least some fairly simplified background on appropriate subjects would help alot.

    I have begun reading Nanosystems, and as a for instance, I may not care to learn how to compute the van der Waals forces, but it would be nice to know how they affect designs. I've seen some of that in various articles, but the discussion only confuses me.(For instance, I have found that I often have to look up 3-5 definitions in the Nanosystems glossary to find the meaning of the first term and I'm confused by the end of that process.)

    Yes, I agree that there is no way I will get into the field without going back to school for further education, but there has to be a starting place for those of us who thought we were more adept in the Liberal Arts and found our inner scientist (or in my case programmer) out on the job.

    Perhaps I will throw a sample question on a specific thing tomorrow as a test of how nanodotters feel about answering the "what does this mean?" questions.

    Thanks again

  13. RobertBradbury Says:


    One piece of advice — do not try to read Nanosystems linearly. Perhaps skip chapters 3-5 completely (unless one is a hard core technical person). The best way to read it is on a "need to know" basis. For example one might read Sections 8.4-5 on aspects of mechanosynthesis and then go back and read section 3.4 on chemical reaction potentials. I found that the best way to read it was the first couple of chapters, the last couple of chapters and then work my way back into the more detailed technical aspects in the middle. It is well organized as a thesis but it is not well organized for people attempting to learn nanotechnology as chunks they can grasp.

  14. Anonymous Coward Says:


    There is a for dummies book search google "nanotechnology for dummies"

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