Names throw their weight around in O-chem

Organic Chemistry. First edition
March 2, 2001

The publication of Organic Chemistry by Jonathan Clayden, Nick Greeves, Stuart Warren and Peter Wothers represents a milestone in the field of organic chemistry textbooks. Ask any practising chemists in industry or university who graduated in the past 20 years what texts they used, and the same names will crop up. Not the names of books, but the names of their authors. Chemists never refer to book titles, as they are invariably called Organic Chemistry with the occasional subtitle to make the book a little more distinctive from the next.

So, pre-Clayden et al, names such as McMurray, Morrison and Boyd, Solomons, Vollhardt, Streitwieser and Heathcock ruled the shelves. There may be a few chemists in higher education who have not actually seen Clayden et al 's Organic Chemistry , but I doubt if there are any who will not have heard of it. Why is this? In a nutshell, it is the authors. Probably not since Norman's Principles of Organic Synthesis or perhaps Tedder and Nechvatal's Basic Organic Chemistry , both from 30 years ago, have we seen British-based authors for this type of general organic text. The fact that the authors come from British universities is significant for those selecting course texts for undergraduate degree programmes. The American texts, staple diet of undergraduates for many years, have been written by the teachers of, and are primarily targeted at, the rather restricted sophomore taking "O-chem" courses. Therefore, they are, on the whole, too limited for use as general texts for the complete breadth of the modern British degree course. Most are well written and useful for first and second-year courses. However, they are at best inadequate and at worst useless for almost all final-year advanced organic chemistry options taught in the UK.

The subsidised Oxford Primer series at about Pounds 6 a go is very popular and allows students to pick up targeted short texts for most of their advanced courses. However, I would not be surprised if there was a decline in purchases of such organic primers in departments that adopt Clayden as their course text. The only other "all-rounder" competitor text of significance is perhaps that written by Jerry March. But this book is more likely to be found dog-eared on the shelves of industrialists, academics or postgraduates. March is a fundamentally different type of text from Clayden, being an extensively referenced and useful resource for the postgraduate chemist. It is also much drier and far less enjoyable to read than Clayden and undoubtedly far less accessible for chemists in their formative years. This does not mean that I see a divide between these two texts at the undergraduate and postgraduate level. I can see Clayden becoming a most useful bridging text beside March for recent graduate students.

The first chapters set the tone for Organic Chemistry with individual and refreshing coverage of key foundation topics: how to represent and talk about organic structures, how atoms bond together to form molecules and how to describe on paper how these molecules combine through reaction mechanisms.

I like the way they point the reader towards key trivial names for the molecules that we use day to day, and describe how we can talk about structures for which there are no trivial names without resorting to the complex IUPAC systematic rules. Cross-referencing in the book is well done with a "Connections" box at the beginning of each chapter. These place contents of the forthcoming chapter in context by identifying the foundation knowledge needed for the topic to come, what the reader will actually find in the chapter in question and, importantly, what they have to look forward to in later chapters that will build on this material. If this text was on the web, this is where hyperlinks would be placed, allowing the reader to surf the text easily, checking back and peeking ahead. Maybe some actual page numbers would be better than chapter numbers alone?

The authors state that they set out not to make the book artificially simple, and they manage to do this without losing clarity or making the reading any less enjoyable. I like the fact that they use new and up-to-date examples to illustrate reactions and mechanisms. The authors do not shy away from using a wide range of molecular contexts, drawing on modern literature and industrial processes, to illustrate particular mechanisms and processes. Rather than the more common spoon-feeding of similar examples, this approach can only assist the diligent student in learning more quickly how to see the wood from the trees, which is one of the main hurdles to becoming a successful O-chem student.

I have not said much about the content of subsequent chapters. You really have to see the book to believe the breadth of material covered, and the range of topics in its 1,500 pages is most impressive. As mentioned, the American texts are limited but here we are spoilt for choice. We have organometallic chemistry, sulphur, selenium, silicon, boron, asymmetric synthesis, physical organic chemistry, natural products, discussion of the chemistry of biological processes, polymers and more. I could go on but space precludes.

All these topics, and there are 53 chapters' worth, are dealt with in the same rational and detailed way as the introductory material, with cross-referencing and the drawing together of themes and threads of comprehension, which are key to making organic chemistry a manageable subject.

A colleague recently told of an encounter he had with a sales representative from a publisher of one of the standard US texts. My colleague brandished Clayden and proclaimed: "Have you seen this? It's brilliant." The rep sighed, shrugged her shoulders and replied: "I've heard a lot of people say that." But I do not expect my colleague brandished the book for too long. Tipping the scales at just over 3kg, the weight of this book could be seen as a disadvantage, especially if teachers envisage students bringing it to seminars. Despite this, I think it is the first modern undergraduate organic chemistry text that could be used in some shape or form for almost every organic chemistry course in any UK undergraduate programme. Luckily for Clayden, his surname appears higher up the alphabetic list than the others. We know that Greeves, Warren and Wothers have equally contributed to this book, but I soon expect to be hearing: "You can look it up in Clayden" ringing from lectures and tutorials, and for many years to come.

Andrew Boa is lecturer in organic chemistry, University of Hull.

Organic Chemistry. First edition

Author - Jonathan Clayden, Nick Greeves, Stuart Warren and Peter Wothers
ISBN - 0 19 850346 6
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £29.99
Pages - 1,508

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