When I first began to study organic chemistry, it was the mid 1990’s. The Internet existed, in some form, but no-one needs me to tell them that it certainly wasn’t the titan construct that exists today. People were using dial-up connections; at least, I certainly was. The terminals – whether at school or my desktop PC at home – simply weren’t powerful enough to handle very complex software, which meant that not only was the bandwidth not available to handle large amounts of data, but the processing power (both client and server side) simply didn’t exist for many desired applications.
This was particularly evident in the field of organic chemistry. The one thing that people in general should know about organic chemistry, even if they don’t know anything else, is that organic chemistry is a vast field of study. The number of theoretically “possible” compounds (meaning, they’re predicted to be stable enough to isolate, and don’t violate any known laws of chemical behavior), is essentially unlimited. This is due to the carbon atoms remarkable ability to form stable bonds to itself, which can continue on and on until you have distinctly separate molecules consisting of millions of carbon atoms, all atoms being interconnected.
Because of this wide array of compounds, all of which may have slightly different chemical behavior and properties, and because you would look a little foolish publishing your “brand new compound” only to find out that it doesn’t have the property you need – or worse, it was made 30 years ago and everything about it is already known – it’s very important for organic chemists to have access to this type of chemical data. There are dozens of scientific journals in which chemists publish their data, not to mention the scientific conferences, patent applications, and published doctoral work in which new molecules are disclosed. How in the world do you even begin to educate yourself and learn about a particular compound when there is 150 years (plus) of literature and published documents piled up?
The answer we would give in present times is, of course, a computerized search. However, that option wasn’t viable before the Internet (and to a lesser extent, the PC) revolution(s). It was all done by hand. I can remember walking past a healthy chunk of shelving on my libraries ground floor on my way to the elevators each day, and there – taking up a nice amount of real estate – were row after row after row of thick blue-colored books. The Chemical Abstracts service – the first real attempt to index and cross-reference chemical structures and published works containing their characterization data. Searching this collection of books for one specific entry was an ugly, dirty, thankless task. The filing system was arcane and took practice to learn. Even when you did find the entry you wanted, you had to copy down all the listed references, and go to another floor in the library to (hopefully) find the journals that you wanted, and then individually find each article, and then individually scan each article to see if it discussed the specific information that you desired. Often times, it did not, and you had to start all over again. For a beginning Organic chemistry student, this was extremely frustrating. Learning the information when it was in front of me was hard enough, but in this situation, I had to fight and struggle just to get a hold of the information in the first place!
From an efficiency point of view, it was disgusting, worthless, and pointless. Endless hours of nonproductive work thrown down unproductive avenues. Thankfully, all of that has now changed, and it was bandwidth which changed it. The ability to rapidly and efficiently search remote databases and cherry-pick related results to download to your home PC in the blink of an eye is a computing task that all of us take for granted nowadays. It’s just the way things work – we open up a web browser, tap a few buttons, and the lyrics to a new song we just heard on the radio are on our screen, perhaps with a discreet suggested link to purchase the music from Amazon. Astonishing. This capability was rapidly adopted by educators and students of organic chemistry, who were fed up with manually sorting their way through a century and a half of data.
The result is something quite special. The Chemical Abstracts service is now online, as are most of the journals both in the United States and abroad. Front-end PC applications such as Scifinder Scholar and Beilstein allow a chemist to query the database in a flexible and intuitive way, downloading the results instantly and providing the aspiring student a chance to further streamline the results until the end result is maybe ten to twelve PDF files of different papers from different journals over a time span of decades, each with extremely pertinent information to your search needs. All within ten to fifteen minutes of booting up your computer. Absolutely stunning in comparison to the way things used to be.
Learning organic chemistry is hard enough. Having to fight for your primary “text” added an additional layer of unnecessary pain to the whole affair. By increasing the availability of high speed computers and computer connections, students nowadays can spend all of their time and effort learning the material, instead of simply finding the material to learn. That can’t help but have a positive effect on chemistry education. Even better, because the process is so simple and painless, students now are encouraged to be curious. What would happen if I changed that part of the molecule to this structure? It doesn’t mean hours of library work to find the answer anymore, all I have to do is click the “Submit” button and sip my coffee as the computer begins to display the results. The ready availability of computerized databases (a by-product of the Internet revolution) has fundamentally changed the scene of organic chemistry education. I, for one, am thankful. I never want to see those blue-colored indexes ever again.