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Matter is the Stuff Around You

Matter is everything around you. Atoms and molecules are all composed of matter. Matter is anything that has mass and takes up space. If you are new to the idea of mass, it is the amount of stuff in an object. We talk about the difference between mass and weight in another section. Matter is sometimes related to light and electromagnetic radiation.

Even though matter can be found all over the Universe, you will only find it in a few forms on Earth. We cover five states of matter on the site. Each of those states is sometimes called a phase. There are many other states of matter that exist in extreme environments. Scientists will probably discover more states as we continue to explore the Universe.

Five States of Matter

You should know about solids, liquids, gases, plasmas, and one state called the Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC). Scientists have always known about solids, liquids, and gases. Plasma was a new idea when it was identified by William Crookes in 1879. The scientists who worked with the Bose-Einstein condensate received a Nobel Prize for their work in 1995.

What makes a state of matter? It’s about the physical state of the molecules and atoms. Think about solids. They are often hard and brittle. Liquids are fluidy, can move around a little, and fill up containers. Gases are always around you, but the molecules of a gas are much farther apart than the molecules in a liquid. If a gas has an odor, you’ll be able to smell it before you can see it. The BEC is all about atoms that are even closer and less energetic than atoms in a solid.

Changing States of Matter

Molecules can move from one physical state to another (phase change) and not change their basic structure. Oxygen (O2) as a gas has the same chemical properties as liquid oxygen. The liquid state is colder and denser, but the molecules (the basic parts) are still the same. Water (H2O) is another example. A water molecule is made up of two hydrogen (H) atoms and one oxygen (O) atom. It has the same molecular structure whether it is a gas, liquid, or solid. Although its physical state may change, its chemical state remains the same.

So you’re asking, “What is a chemical change?” Let’s start with a glass of pure water. If the formula of water were to change, that would be a chemical change. If you could add a second oxygen atom to a water molecule, you would have hydrogen peroxide (H2O2). The molecules would not be water anymore. The reality of creating hydrogen peroxide is more difficult.

Chemical changes occur when the bonds between atoms in a molecule are created or destroyed. Changes in the physical state are related to changes in the immediate environment such as temperature, pressure, and other physical forces. Generally, the basic chemical structure does not change when there is a physical change. Of course, in extreme environments such as the Sun, no molecule is safe from destruction.

Section 1States of Matter
Lecture 1The Solid StateFree Preview

What is one physical characteristic of a solid? Solids can be hard like a rock, soft like fur, a big rock like an asteroid, or small rocks like grains of sand. The key is that solids hold their shape and they don’t flow like a liquid. A rock will always look like a rock unless something happens to it. The same goes for a diamond. Solids can hold their shape because their molecules are tightly packed together.

You might ask, “Is baby power a solid? It’s soft and powdery.” Baby power is also a solid. It’s just a ground down piece of talc. Even when you grind a solid into powder, you will see tiny pieces of that solid under a microscope. Liquids will flow and fill up any shape of container. Solids like to hold their shape.

In the same way that a large solid holds its shape, the atoms inside of a solid are not allowed to move around too much. Atoms and molecules in liquids and gases are bouncing and floating around, free to move where they want. The molecules in a solid are stuck in a specific structure or arrangement of atoms. The atoms still vibrate and the electrons fly around in their orbitals, but the entire atom will not change its position

Solid Mixtures

Solids can be made of many things. They can have pure elements or a variety of compounds inside. When you have a solid with more than one type of compound, it is called a mixture. Most rocks are mixtures of many different compounds. Concrete is a good example of a man-made solid mixture.

Granite is a mixture you might find when you hike around a national park. Granite is made of little pieces of quartz, mica, and other particles. Because all of the little pieces are spread through the rock in an uneven way, scientists call it a heterogeneous mixture. Heterogeneous mixtures have different concentrations of compounds in different areas of the mixture. For example, there might be a lot of quartz and very little feldspar in one part of the granite, but only a few inches away those amounts might flip.


On the other end of the spectrum is something called a crystal. A crystal is a form of solid where the atoms are arranged is a very specific order. Crystals are often pure substances and not all substances can form crystals because it is a very delicate process. The atoms are arranged in a regular repeating pattern called a crystal lattice. Table salt (NaCl) is a great example of a crystal you can find around your house. The sodium (Na) and chlorine (Cl) atoms arrange themselves in a specific pattern to form the cubic salt crystals.


A diamond is another good example of a crystal. Diamonds are a crystal form of pure carbon (C). The carbon atoms of a diamond are connected in a very compact and structured way. The carbon atoms found in graphite (in pencils) have a different crystalline arrangement. According to the Mohs hardness scale, diamonds are very hard with a value of 10 while graphite is very soft with a value of 1.5. The two different structures of carbon atoms (tetrahedron versus hexagon) are called allotropes.

Lecture 2The Liquid State
Lecture 3The Gaseous State