Matter & Energy

Matter is composed of atoms or groups of atoms called molecules. The arrangement of particles in a material depends on the physical state of the substance. In a solid, particles form a compact structure that resists flow. Particles in a liquid have more energy than those in a solid. They can flow past one another, but they remain close. Particles in a gas have the most energy. They move rapidly and are separated from one another by relatively large distances.


Atom, tiny basic building block of matter. All the material on Earth is composed of various combinations of atoms. Atoms are the smallest particles of a chemical element that still exhibit all the chemical properties unique to that element. A row of 100 million atoms would be only about a centimeter long. See also Chemical Element.

Understanding atoms is key to understanding the physical world. More than 100 different elements exist in nature, each with its own unique atomic makeup. The atoms of these elements react with one another and combine in different ways to form a virtually unlimited number of chemical compounds. When two or more atoms combine, they form a molecule. For example, two atoms of the element hydrogen (abbreviated H) combine with one atom of the element oxygen (O) to form a molecule of water (H20).

Since all matter—from its formation in the early universe to present-day biological systems—consists of atoms, understanding their structure and properties plays a vital role in physics, chemistry, and medicine. In fact, knowledge of atoms is essential to the modern scientific understanding of the complex systems that govern the physical and biological worlds. Atoms and the compounds they form play a part in almost all processes that occur on Earth and in space. All organisms rely on a set of chemical compounds and chemical reactions to digest food, transport energy, and reproduce. Stars such as the Sun rely on reactions in atomic nuclei to produce energy. Scientists duplicate these reactions in laboratories on Earth and study them to learn about processes that occur throughout the universe.


Atoms are made of smaller particles, called electrons, protons, and neutrons. An atom consists of a cloud of electrons surrounding a small, dense nucleus of protons and neutrons. Electrons and protons have a property called electric charge, which affects the way they interact with each other and with other electrically charged particles. Electrons carry a negative electric charge, while protons have a positive electric charge. The negative charge is the opposite of the positive charge, and, like the opposite poles of a magnet, these opposite electric charges attract one another. Conversely, like charges (negative and negative, or positive and positive) repel one another. The attraction between an atom’s electrons and its protons holds the atom together. Normally, an atom is electrically neutral, which means that the negative charge of its electrons is exactly equaled by the positive charge of its protons.

The nucleus contains nearly all of the mass of the atom, but it occupies only a tiny fraction of the space inside the atom. The diameter of a typical nucleus is only about 1 × 10-14 m (4 × 10-13 in), or about 1/100,000 of the diameter of the entire atom. The electron cloud makes up the rest of the atom’s overall size. If an atom were magnified until it was as large as a football stadium, the nucleus would be about the size of a grape.