Chem – Matter and the Elements


What is matter and what are the elements?

Matter consists of all the things we interact with physically in our daily lives. Matter is anything that we can physically touch or has a mass. So matter is everywhere. It is in the computer you are reading, the chair you may be sitting in, and even the air around you is made up of matter. The only thing we commonly think of that does not have matter is outer space. Elements are the individual pieces that we can use to build any type of matter we see or touch. You can mix different elements together in different ways to go from something like a computer to a car. The individual pieces are so small we can barely even see them with our most powerful detection equipment.


To know the elements and how to use them better in our every day lives, we have to understand what the individual elements consist of. Elements consist of three different parts. They are the proton, the neutron and the electron. Protons have a large mass and are positively charged. Neutrons have a large mass and do not have a charge. Electrons have a very small mass and have a negative charge.


An individual element by itself is called an atom. If we were to picture an atom of a specific element it would look like a sphere (ball). If we looked inside of the atom we would see the protons and neutrons in the very center of the atom. This very center part of the sphere where the protons and neutrons are is called the nucleus. If we looked for the electrons of this atoms, they would be traveling very fast around the outer edges of the sphere. This is a picture of the atom to match the description I just went through. You don’t need to have a detailed understanding of the structure of an atom yet. As long as you understand that the protons and neutrons are in the middle and the electrons are around the outer parts then you are fine for now.


Even this very simple description and picture of an atom already gives us hints about how the structure of an atom can act. Since the electrons are the outside of the atom we would come into contact with them first. This means that changes that can occur have to change the electrons first. Also, since protons and neutrons are at the center of the atom, they are much harder to change because you have to dig through the outer layers first. Another theory we might come up with is that since protons are positively charged and electrons are negatively charged they might have some kind of attraction toward one another.


Click here for a link to a periodic table. You should have this periodic table or a similar periodic table open throughout the rest of this lesson so you can reference it while you are reading and practicing problems. To emphasize how important the periodic table is for chemistry, I would like to talk about it a little. I tend to complain a lot about how things are organized in science. With the periodic table this is never the case. The more I learn about the elements the more appreciation I have for the periodic table. In my opinion it is the single greatest achievement in science in at least the past 150 years. Anything having to do with modern chemistry owes at least a small portion of its credit to the organization of the periodic table. This is why I would like to thank Dmitri Mendeleev for coming up with the precursor to the modern periodic table. Although, other people we thinking along the same lines at the time and although their may be a better way to organize the periodic table in the future, no one has ever created a periodic table organization that is both so simple to understand and so simple to learn from. Even though it can be complex and confusing when you first look at the periodic table it would be ten or a hundred times worse without it. Throughout most chemistry classes, your ability to get a good grade will depend about 50% on your understanding of the periodic table. No other single factor is nearly as helpful to your grade as knowing as much as you can about the periodic table.

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