Measurement seems like a simple subject, on the surface at least; indeed, all measurements can be reduced to just two components: number and unit. Yet one might easily ask, "What numbers, and what units?"—a question that helps bring into focus the complexities involved in designating measurements.
Temperature, heat, and related concepts belong to the world of physics rather than chemistry; yet it would be impossible for the chemist to work without an understanding of these properties. Thermometers, of course, measure temperature according to one or both of two well-known scales based on the freezing and boiling points of water, though scientists prefer a scale based on the virtual freezing point of all matter.
Among the physical properties studied by chemists and other scientists, mass is one of the most fundamental. All matter, by definition, has mass.
Matter is physical substance that occupies space, has mass, is composed of atoms—or, in the case of subatomic particles, is part of an atom—and is convertible to energy. On Earth, matter appears in three clearly defined forms—solid, liquid, and gas—whose varying structural characteristics are a function of the speeds at which its molecules move in relation to one another.
The number of elements that appear ordinarily in the form of a gas is relatively small: oxygen, hydrogen, fluorine, and chlorine in the halogen "family"; and a handful of others, most notably the noble gases in Group 8 of the periodic table. Yet many substances can exist in the form of a gas, depending on the relative attraction and motion of molecules in that substance.
Our world is made up of atoms, yet the atomic model of the universe is nonetheless considered a "theory." When scientists know beyond all reasonable doubt that a particular principle is the case, then it is dubbed a law. Laws address the fact that certain things happen, as well as how they happen.
Every known item of matter in the universe has some amount of mass, even if it is very small. But what about something so insignificant in mass that comparing it to a gram is like comparing a millimeter to the distance between Earth and the nearest galaxy?
No one can see an electron. Even an electron microscope, used for imaging the activities of these subatomic particles, does not offer a glimpse of an electron as one can look at an amoeba; instead, the microscope detects the patterns of electron deflection.
Isotopes are atoms of the same element that have different masses due to differences in the number of neutrons they contain. Many isotopes are stable, meaning that they are not subject to radioactive decay, but many more are radioactive.
Atoms have no electric charge; if they acquire one, they are called ions. Ions are involved in a form of chemical bonding that produces extremely strong bonds between metals, or between a metal and a nonmetal.
Prior to the nineteenth century, chemists pursued science simply by taking measurements, before and after a chemical reaction, of the substances involved. This was an external approach, rather like a person reaching into a box and feeling of the contents without actually being able to see them.
The elements are at the heart of chemistry, and indeed they are at the heart of life as well. Every physical substance encountered in daily life is either an element, or more likely a compound containing more than one element.
In virtually every chemistry classroom on the planet, there is a chart known as the periodic table of elements. At first glance, it looks like a mere series of boxes, with letters and numbers in them, arranged according to some kind of code not immediately clear to the observer.
The term "family" is used to describe elements that share certain characteristics—not only in terms of observable behavior, but also with regard to atomic structure. All noble gases, for instance, tend to be highly nonreactive: only a few of them combine with other elements, and then only with fluorine, the most reactive of all substances.
A number of characteristics distinguish metals, including their shiny appearance, as well as their ability to be bent into various shapes without breaking. In addition, metals tend to be highly efficient conductors of heat and electricity.
Group 1 of the periodic table of elements consists of hydrogen, and below it the six alkali metals: lithium, sodium, potassium, rubidium, cesium, and francium. The last three are extremely rare, and have little to do with everyday life; on the other hand, it is hard to spend a day without encountering at least one of the first three—particularly sodium, found in table salt.
The six alkaline earth metals—beryllium, magnesium, calcium, strontium, barium, and radium—comprise Group 2 on the periodic table of elements. This puts them beside the alkali metals in Group 1, and as their names suggest, the two families share a number of characteristics, most notably their high reactivity.
By far the largest family of elements is the one known as the transition metals, sometimes called transition elements. These occupy the "dip" in the periodic table between the "tall" sets of columns or groups on either side.