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.

Quantum Theory

Quantum Theory, in physics, description of the particles that make up matter and how they interact with each other and with energy. Quantum theory explains in principle how to calculate what will happen in any experiment involving physical or biological systems, and how to understand how our world works. The name “quantum theory” comes from the fact that the theory describes the matter and energy in the universe in terms of single indivisible units called quanta (singular quantum). Quantum theory is different from classical physics. Classical physics is an approximation of the set of rules and equations in quantum theory. Classical physics accurately describes the behavior of matter and energy in the everyday universe. For example, classical physics explains the motion of a car accelerating or of a ball flying through the air. Quantum theory, on the other hand, can accurately describe the behavior of the universe on a much smaller scale, that of atoms and smaller particles. The rules of classical physics do not explain the behavior of matter and energy on this small scale. Quantum theory is more general than classical physics, and in principle, it could be used to predict the behavior of any physical, chemical, or biological system. However, explaining the behavior of the everyday world with quantum theory is too complicated to be practical.

Quantum theory not only specifies new rules for describing the universe but also introduces new ways of thinking about matter and energy. The tiny particles that quantum theory describes do not have defined locations, speeds, and paths like objects described by classical physics. Instead, quantum theory describes positions and other properties of particles in terms of the chances that the property will have a certain value. For example, it allows scientists to calculate how likely it is that a particle will be in a certain position at a certain time.

Quantum description of particles allows scientists to understand how particles combine to form atoms. Quantum description of atoms helps scientists understand the chemical and physical properties of molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles. Quantum theory enabled scientists to understand the conditions of the early universe, how the Sun shines, and how atoms and molecules determine the characteristics of the material that they make up. Without quantum theory, scientists could not have developed nuclear energy or the electric circuits that provide the basis for computers.

Quantum theory describes all of the fundamental forces—except gravitation—that physicists have found in nature. The forces that quantum theory describes are the electrical, the magnetic, the weak, and the strong. Physicists often refer to these forces as interactions, because the forces control the way particles interact with each other. Interactions also affect spontaneous changes in isolated particles.