Properties of an element are sometimes classed as either chemical or physical. Chemical properties are usually observed in the course of a chemical reaction, while physical properties are observed by examining a sample of the pure element. The chemical properties of an element are due to the distribution of electrons around the atom's nucleus, particularly the outer, or valence, electrons; it is these electrons that are involved in chemical reactions. A chemical reaction does not affect the atomic nucleus; the atomic number therefore remains unchanged in a chemical reaction.
Some properties of an element can be observed only in a collection of atoms or molecules of the element. These properties include color, density, melting point, boiling point, and thermal and electrical conductivity. While some of these properties are due chiefly to the electronic structure of the element, others are more closely related to properties of the nucleus, e.g., mass number.
The elements are sometimes grouped according to their properties. One major classification of the elements is as metals, nonmetals, and metalloids. Elements with very similar chemical properties are often referred to as families; some families of elements include the halogens, the inert gases, and the alkali metals. In the periodic table the elements are arranged in order of increasing atomic weight in such a way that the elements in any column have similar properties.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.