DK Science: Matter

Everything you can hold, taste, or smell is made of matter. Matter makes up everything you can see, including clothes, water, food, plants, and animals. It even makes up some things you cannot see, such as air or the smell of perfume. You can describe a type of matter by its MATERIAL PROPERTIES such as its colour or how hard it is. Matter is made up of PARTICLES so tiny that only the most powerful microscope can see them.


Matter can be divided into two groups: non-living matter and living matter. Non-living matter does not move on its own, grow, or reproduce. The rocks that make up the Earth are examples of non-living matter. All living things, including animals and plants, are living matter.


Not everything is made of matter. Non-matter includes the light from a torch, the heat from a fire, and the sound of a police siren. You cannot hold, taste, or smell these things. They are not types of matter, but forms of energy. Everything that exists can be classed as either a type of matter or a form of energy.


Different types of matter have different material properties that make them useful for different jobs. A plastic hosepipe is flexible, so it can be pointed in any direction. A perspex visor is transparent, so the wearer can see straight through it. A firefighter’s suit is shiny so it can reflect heat and light. Flexibility, transparency, and shininess are three examples of material properties.


Colour is a very obvious material property. The bright colours of this Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing butterfly warn off predators and help it to attract a mate. Matter can be brightly coloured, dull, or transparent. Glass is an example of a transparent material.


Density is the amount of matter packed into a space. Lead, for example, is very dense. A small cube of lead has a lot of matter packed into a small space, so it feels very heavy. Flour is not as dense. To balance a set of scales, only two small lead weights are needed in comparison to a much larger pile of flour.


All matter is made of incredibly tiny particles called atoms. Atoms are far too small to see with our eyes, but scientists have worked out how small they are. There are many kinds of atom. Sand grains are made of two kinds of atom: oxygen and silicon. People are made of about 28 different kinds of atom. Material properties depend on the kinds of atom the material is made from.


Grains of sand look like pieces of gravel when viewed through a microscope. They have different shapes and sizes. Each grain contains millions of atoms, too small to see with a microscope. A sand grain the size of the full stop at the end of this sentence would contain about 10 million million million atoms.


We cannot really see atoms with microscopes. The best we can do is image them, by bouncing light off the particles. A computer translates the light beams into an image. Scanning tunnelling microscopes (STM) and atomic force microscopes (AFM) do this.


Democritus was one of the first philosophers (thinkers) to say that everything was made up of particles too small to be seen. He believed these particles could not be destroyed or split. Democritus said that all changes in the world could be explained as changes in the way particles are packed together.

Copyright © 2007 Dorling Kindersley