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.

Electromagnetic Force

The most familiar of the forces at work inside the atom is the electromagnetic force. This is the same force that causes people’s hair to stick to a brush or comb when they have a buildup of static electricity. The electromagnetic force causes opposite electric charges to attract each other. Because of this force, the negatively charged electrons in an atom are attracted to the positively charged protons in the atom’s nucleus. This force of attraction binds the electrons to the atom. The electromagnetic force becomes stronger as the distance between charges becomes smaller. This property usually causes oppositely charged particles to come as close to each other as possible. For many years, scientists wondered why electrons didn’t just spiral into the nucleus of an atom, getting as close as possible to the protons. Physicists eventually learned that particles as small as electrons can behave like waves, and this property keeps electrons at set distances from the atom’s nucleus. The wavelike nature of electrons is discussed below in the Quantum Atom section of this article.

The electromagnetic force also causes like charges to repel each other. The negatively charged electrons repel one another and tend to move far apart from each other, but the positively charged nucleus exerts enough electromagnetic force to keep the electrons attached to the atom. Protons in the nucleus also repel one other, but, as described below, the strong force overcomes the electromagnetic force in the nucleus to hold the protons together.