Skip to main content
Geosciences LibreTexts

9.2: What is Matter?

  • Page ID
  • Learning Objectives

    • Define matter and explain how it is composed of building blocks known as "atoms".

    We are all familiar with matter. The definition of Matter is anything that has mass and volume (takes up space). For most common objects that we deal with every day, it is fairly simple to demonstrate that they have mass and take up space. You might be able to imagine, however, the difficulty for people several hundred years ago to demonstrate that air had mass and volume. Air (and all other gases) are invisible to the eye, have very small masses compared to equal amounts of solids and liquids, and are quite easy to compress (change volume). Without sensitive equipment, it would have been difficult to convince people that gases are matter. Today, we can measure the mass of a small balloon when it is deflated and then blow it up, tie it off, and measure its mass again to detect the additional mass due to the air inside. The mass of air, under room conditions, that occupies a one quart jar is approximately 0.0002 pounds. This small amount of mass would have been difficult to measure in times before balances were designed to accurately measure very small masses. Later, scientists were able to compress gases into such a small volume that the gases turned into liquids, which made it clear that gases are matter.

    alt  alt alt Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Everything from an ant, to a truck, to the earth, and even the entire galaxy is composed of matter. Images used with permission from Wikipedia (CC_SA-BY-3.0; credit High Contrast).

    Even though the universe consists of "things" as wildly different as ants and galaxies, the matter that makes up all of these "things" is composed of a very limited number of building blocks. These building blocks are known as atoms, and so far, scientists have discovered or created a grand total of 118 different types of atoms. Scientists have given a name to each different type of atom. A substance that is composed of only one type of atom is called an element. At this point, what should amaze you is that all forms of matter in our universe are made with only 118 different building blocks. In some ways, it's sort of like cooking a gourmet, five-course meal using only three ingredients! How is it possible? To answer that question, you have to understand the ways in which different elements are put together to form matter.

    The most important method that nature uses to organize atoms into matter is the formation of molecules. Molecules are groups of two or more atoms that have been bonded together. There are millions of different ways to bond atoms together, which means that there are millions of different possible molecules. Each of these molecules has its own set of chemical properties, and it's these properties with which chemists are most concerned. You will learn a lot more about atoms and molecules, including how they were discovered, in a later part of the textbook.


    All matter has mass and occupies space. All physical objects are made of matter. Matter itself is composed of tiny building blocks known as "atoms". There are only 118 different types of atoms known to man. Frequently, atoms are bonded together to form "molecules".

    Contributions & Attributions

    This page was constructed from content via the following contributor(s) and edited (topically or extensively) by the LibreTexts development team to meet platform style, presentation, and quality: