Introducing Carbon—and the fundamentals of organic chemitry

Chemists divide all substances into two classes. In one class are such things as olive oil, sugar, starch, glue, gelatin, silk, rubber, paper, and penicillin. These are examples of organic substances. In the other class are such things as air, water, sand, clay, salt, gold, silver, iron, brass, glass, and concrete. These are examples of inorganic substances. The distinction between the two emerged when it became evident that organic substances are made up of molecules that almost always contained at least one carbon atom; it then became convenient to call any substance with carbon atoms in its molecule organic and any substance without carbon atoms inorganic. In this way the world of organic chemistry came to be identified with the world of carbon.

In The World of Carbon, Isaac Asimov, introducing the study of organic chemistry, offers a clear, vivid, and comprehensible analysis of many of the most common organic compounds in our world. And he demonstrates how increased knowledge of the structure of these carbon compounds—from anesthetics and antifreeze to paint and perfume—has led to a better life for all of us.

Those common organic compounds not discusssed in this volume are covered by Dr. Asimov in a companion volume that concentrates on carbon compounds containing at least one atom of nitrogen. Appropriately entitled The World of Nitrogen, it is also available in Collier Books.

This is another in the series of Abelard-Schuman science juveniles, and, like the others, is a book which I have always enjoyed from the days I first read it as a teenager.

Here Asimov gives us a quick overview of some of the major chemicals and families of chemicals made up solely of carbon (hence the title), hydrogen, and oxygen. As such, it is somewhat the equivalent of Building Blocks of the Universe, here centered on organic chemistry.

The book may be slightly overladen with footnotes, as Asimov stops to explain as much as possible—a habit he describes, by the way, in “The Sound of Panting” in Only a Trillion—but the overall tone remains light and clear, the book runs smoothly, and at its end the reader is left with a reasonably good grasp of some of the basics of the structure of organic compounds. It shows its age here and there, but remains nonetheless worthwhile for the non-chemist who wants to get some idea of how organic chemistry works.

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