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March 30, 2005
More on Question Four
I thought I'd briefly explain one of my "Ten Questions" from the other day. The old-fashioned qualitative organic tests that I mentioned in #4 are things that were used in the 1960s and before to identify classes of compounds. Various brews can give you color indicators for the presence of double bonds, methyl ketones, aldehydes and the like. Some of them are quite dramatic - Tollens reagent, for example, suddenly deposits a silver mirror layer (scroll down on that link to see it) on the inside of the flask when it goes right.
But no one uses this stuff any more. No one at all, at least not if they can help it. Modern methods like NMR and routine HPLC/mass spectrometry have completely destroyed the usefulness of the old chemical tests, because you can now find out far more about your compound with little or no destruction of the sample.
Some undergraduate courses apparently still have these reactions in their curricula, and the only reason I can see is inertia. I've heard rationalizations about using them to teach reaction mechanisms and so on, but you can do that just as easily with reactions that real chemists actually run in the real world. And why wouldn't you? If you're a student that's been asked to run a battery of qualitative organic tests, you should ask for a refund of your tuition. You're being had.
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