Matter (chemistry)

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This article is about the concept in chemistry. For other uses of the term Matter, please see Matter (disambiguation).

From the perspective of classical mechanics, chemists describe matter as anything (any thing) that occupies space and has mass.[1] [2]  [3] Without matter the universe would not contain the things that chemists concern themselves with, atoms and all of the things of which atoms serve as building blocks, the stuff of the universe, from stars and planets to the inanimate things of our planet and all its living things, including people, among whom include chemists whose interests center on studying and exploiting for knowledge and human benefit the properties of matter and the ways matter of one form with one set of properties transforms into matter of a different form with a different set of properties, as, for example, when hydrogen atoms and oxygen atoms transform into liquid water, or when liquid water transforms into solid water or vapor.[1] [2]

From the classical chemistry perspective of matter viewed as space-occupying mass, matter includes the subatomic particles that scientists can discern as having physical extension and mass (e.g., protons, neutrons, quarks), electrons, the chemical elements, also called elementary substances — "the substances from which everything tangible is made"[4] — and all the 'compounds' and 'mixtures' chemical elements make up.[5]

Chemists do not ignore the fact that matter has structure both at the subatomic level, and at the atomic and supra-atomic level. They understand that facts at the subatomic level help explain facts at the supra-atomic level, for example, that the electrons of atoms play an essential role in determining chemical reactivity.

From the perspective of classical chemistry, informed by quantum or nuclear physics, all matter consists of chemical elements, either uncombined with other elements (e.g., pure gold), or bonded, each element with itself (e.g., dioxygen (O2), or in various combinations of chemical elements of differing species organized as 'compounds' (e.g., ionic compounds such as sodium chloride [NaCl], covalent molecules such as glucose) or as 'mixtures' (e.g., a solution of glucose in water, an alloy of copper and tin, a mixture of oil and vinegar).

A minimal account of matter from the chemist´s classical perspective requires discussion of the meanings of the terms 'thing' (or 'anything' or 'something' or 'everything'), 'space-occupying', 'mass', 'substance', 'chemical elements', 'molecules', 'ions', 'compounds', 'mixtures', 'properties', and 'chemical reactions'. This article continues with that discussion.

This article will use the words 'object' and 'substance' generically to refer to a 'piece' of matter, something that occupies space and has mass, from a simplest bit or unit of matter, to a tangible sample of matter — matter from a chemist's perspective.



When chemists define matter as anything (any thing) that occupies space and has mass they do not, in conjunction, define thing, presumably because they assume common knowledge of what the word 'thing' means. Indeed, semantic linguists have discovered that the word 'thing' has a primary meaning not definable by the use other words whose definitions do not require knowledge of the definition of 'thing. Any attempt to define 'thing' will require the use of words whose definitions themselves ultimately require knowledge of the definition of the word 'thing'.[6] [7]

Though semantically primitive, 'thing' still has meaning, a meaning a child learns from the way its elders use it, the word's origin going back to the deep-time beginnings of human speech, however pronounced then. A child hears his English-speaking parents frequently uttering 'thing' in reference to what we would call material objects: "This drawer has too many things in it", "Give me that thing before you hurt yourself", "Put your things away".

We would understand, then, that any 'thing' that occupies space and has mass represents matter, providing we know the meaning of the words 'occupy', 'space', and 'mass'. A semanticist might readily define the first two, 'occupy' and 'space', in terms of semantic primitives, but not so readily the third, 'mass', the definition of which we consider in the next section.


See: Mass

Mass gives a measure of the quantity of matter in an object, expressed in kilograms (kg), a basic unit of the International System of Units (SI units). Three related measures of mass exist, referred to as 'inertial mass', 'passive gravitational mass', and 'active gravitational mass'. Physicists have established that the three measures give equivalent values despite their different conceptual bases. For additional information about the relationships among those three measures of mass, see the Addendum subpage of this article.

Three points to note:

  1. An object´s mass gives a measure of the quantity of matter comprising the object;
  2. Objects have the same mass whether measured as inertial, passive, or gravitational mass;
  3. Einstein´s theories of special and general relativity modify the Newtonian concept of mass, which however give a useful measure of mass for most purposes in general chemistry.[8]


One of them [a table] has been familiar to me from earliest years. It is a commonplace object of that environment which I call the world. How shall I describe it? It has extension; it is comparatively permanent; it is coloured; above all it is substantial. By substantial I do not merely mean that it does not collapse when I lean upon it; I mean that it is constituted of "substance" and by that word I am trying to convey to you some conception of its intrinsic nature. It is a thing; not like space, which is a mere negation; nor like time, which is--Heaven knows what! But that will not help you to my meaning because it is the distinctive characteristic of a "thing" to have this substantiality, and I do not think substantiality can be described better than by saying that it is the kind of nature exemplified by an ordinary table. And so we go round in circles. After all if you are a plain commonsense man, not too much worried with scientific scruples, you will be confident that you understand the nature of an ordinary table.
—Arthur S. Eddington][9]

Chemistry conceptualizes matter as consisting of distinguishable types of matter, referred to as 'substances'. [10] Examples of substances include such commonly recognized space-occupying masses as water in a glass container, the glass container itself, copper wire, a gem of pure diamond, air enclosed in a balloon, atoms, and molecules.

Different substances have different properties, either physical or chemical properties, depending on whether or not testing for the property involves the formation of another substance or substances. They may also exist in different 'states', or 'phases', solid, liquid, and gaseous the most familiar.

All substances fall under two generic categories, 'pure substances' and 'mixtures'. Chemists classify as the quintessentially pure substances the chemical elements, types of matter composed solely of a single species of atom, such as the copper atoms fashioned into copper wire, the carbon atoms comprising a diamond gem, or iron atoms in a chunk of purified iron. Ninety-four different species of atoms occur naturally on Earth, each collection, or sample, of which that consists solely of atoms of a single species constitutes a pure substance of the type of matter referred to as a chemical element, or elementary substance.


The atoms of two or more different chemical elements potentially can bind to each other, in constant proportions, by any one of a variety of types of chemical bonds, forming in the process new types of pure substances referred to as 'compounds'. Water exemplifies a compound, composed of units of hydrogen and oxygen atoms tightly bonded, in the same proportion per bonded unit particle, in this case, two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom per unit particle of compound, expressed in chemical formula as H2O. Chemists have identified the bonds in a unit particle of the water compound as so-called covalent bonds, a type of bond that involves electron sharing between the two hydrogen atoms and the oxygen atom, and refer to the unit particle as a molecule. Chemists express quantities of H2O with a variety of measures of mass, such as kilograms, a basic quantitative unit in the International System of Units (SI units), among six other basic quantitative units, and as moles, defined in terms of the number of atoms of a specified isotope of carbon in a specified quantity of isotope expressed in kilograms.


References and notes cited in text as superscripts

  1. 1.0 1.1 Brady JE, Senese F. (2009) Chemistry: Matter and Its Changes. 5th ed. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. ISBN 9780470576595 (eISBN).
    • "Matter is anything that occupies space and has mass. It is the stuff our universe is made of, and all of the chemicals that make up tangible things, from rocks to pizza to people, are examples of matter."
  2. 2.0 2.1 Timberlake KC. (2010) General, Organic, and Biological Chemistry: Structures of Life. New York: Prentice Hall, ISBN 9780136054542.
    • "Matter is anything that has mass and occupies space. Matter makes up all the things we use such as water, wood, plates, plastic bags, clothes, and shoes."
  3. Frost L, Deal T, Timberlake KC. (2011) General, Organic, and Biological Chemistry: An integrated Approach. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall. ISBN 9780805381788.
    • "Matter can be defined as something that takes up space...Saying something "takes up space" is another way to say that it has volume...Now consider that anything that takes up space can also be placed on a scale and be weighed, that is, it has mass. So matter can be more completely defined as anything that takes up space and has mass."
  4. P.W. Atkins PW (1995). The Periodic Kingdom: A Journey into the Land of the Chemical Elements. Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-07265-0.  Full-Text (See page 3)
  5. Note:The questions whether matter has substance or not, whether it qualifies as 'material' at core, remain viable and vital among scientists and philosophers of science. In their year 2007 book, The Matter Myth (see reference following), Paul Davies and John Gribbon state:
  6. Wierzbicka A. (1996) Semantics: Primes and Universals. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198700024. Publisher’s website’s description of book Professor Wierzbicka’s faculty webpage Excerpts from Chapters 1 and 2
  7. Note: Semanticists find that unlike most words in the English lexicon, the word 'thing' occurs universally among the Earth's languages, though not universally pronounced as pronounced in English. 'Thing' qualifies as one of approximately 60 additional universal semantic primitives, or semantic primes, which, though themselves indefinable, serve as the basic set of words for defining all the other words in the lexicon, which otherwise would not be meaningfully defined owing to the circularity of defining words using words which themselves beg definition. Without a set of semantic primitives, words whose meanings we know without reference to other words, the dictionary of the English language cannot escape meaningless definitional circularity. See: Wierzbicka A. (1996) Semantics: Primes and Universals. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198700024. Publisher’s website’s description of book Professor Wierzbicka’s faculty webpage Excerpts from Chapters 1 and 2
  8. Note: If one takes Einstein´s theory of special relativity into consideration, as a more accurate description of reality, mass increases as its velocity increases, hardly detectable as a rocket reaches Earth escape velocity, but hugely as the rocket approaches the speed of light. The theory of special relativity also predicts that mass need not obey the law of conservation of mass, because mass and energy exhibit two manifestations of the same thing, potentially enabling conversion of mass to energy, as in the nuclear reactions involved in generation of atomic energy, or energy to mass, as in the generation of hydrogen atoms from the energy released by the Big Bang that originated our universe.
  9. Eddington AS. (1929) The Nature of the Physical World. New York: The University Press. Gifford Lectures 1927. | Google Books preview, 2005 Kessinger Publishing edition.
  10. Hoffman J, Rosenkrantz G. (1996) Substance: It Nature and Existence. Routledge: London. ISBN 978-0-415-14032-4 (pbk). 240 pp. | Introduction & part of chapter 1 readable online free at publisher's website. | Full-Text online available with subscription to Questia Online Library | Google Books Limited Preview (through p54, with occasional pages missing).