An Occasional New Series: Science for the Scared 1: What is Matter?

30 Dec

I just wrote a book about matter for third graders. And even though it should have been easy, because it’s for third graders, I was amazed at what I don’t know. Like, what the relationship is between an element and an atom. And what matter actually is. And what makes a solid a solid. I haven’t heard back from the editor (and I sure hope she’s enjoying her winter holiday by NOT reading it right now), but I definitely overresearched this topic because it completely fascinated me. In fact, one of the things that fascinated me the most was the magical world of quantum physics, which I could not fit at all into the book, sad to say. Quantum physics was discovered by a number of scientists, most of whom were terrified, confused and amazed by their discovery that basically, beyond the subatomic particles we know as protons and neutrons (the particles that are the nucleus of an atom, except for the hydrogen atom, which has only a proton) or the electrons that dance around it, there is a whole other world of smaller particles—the quarks (the word comes from the writings of James Joyce), for instance, which are forever changing between waves and particles—to put it in the most simplistic terms possible.

However, that is not the purpose of this series. I just want to take this slow, and help other people, like me, who are fascinated by science, but have a lot of other things on their plate. So, my friends, the question is, What IS matter? The short answer is matter is everything in the universe that has mass (which is similar to weight but not exactly). It is everything that is made of atoms. It is your favorite socks, the gas molecules blowing through your hair, your diet coke, Jupiter, etc. Matter takes up space. Sometimes it’s dense, like iron. Sometimes it’s loosely packed, like the gases that make up our whole atmosphere. Think of climbers on Mount Everest who have to use oxygen tanks. There are many fewer atoms of oxygen and nitrogen up at that great height than there are at sea level. But they still have mass. So if anybody asks you, what’s the matter, you know what to tell them.

Writing Prompt: What are some of your favorite forms of matter? And what burning scientific questions do you have?

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