MadSci Network: Physics

Re: What State of Matter Are Sub Atomic Particles?

Date: Wed May 24 19:05:53 2006
Posted By: Benn Tannenbaum, Senior Program Associate
Area of science: Physics
ID: 1147897441.Ph

Dear Brandon,

This is a great question! As I'm sure your teacher has told you, there are
four states of matter-- solid, liquid, gas, and plasma. Each state has
different properties: solids retain their shapes, liquids seek out the same
level in their containers, and gases and plasmas fill their containers
(plasmas are essentially completely ionized gases). What determines the
state of a given chunk of matter? The energy of the system. As you know, as
you raise the temperature of a block of ice (solid water), it will melt to
make liquid water, and then evaporate or boil to make steam or gaseous
water. By raising the temperature, you have added energy to the system.
Neat fact: you have a plasma inside a neon lamp, as that's an ionized gas.
Scientists also use the equations to describe the behaviour of plasmas to
model interstellar space!

So that's how things change state. But what about your question? What about
subatomic particles? As your teacher may have told you, atoms are made of
protons, neutrons, and electrons. Protons and neutrons, made of quarks,
make up the nucleus of the atom. Electrons orbit the nucleus. Electrons and
quarks are what we call fundamental particles-- that means that, as far as
we know, they are not composite, or there is nothing smaller than them. 

What happens if we take an atom and add energy to it? The first thing that
happens is the electrons will jump to higher and higher orbits (we're
getting into quantum mechanics, which is a topic for another day) and will
eventually escape the atom, leaving behind an ion.  Add enough energy, and
all the electrons will be removed.

What happens if we add energy to an ion? Well, just like with the atom
having an electron (or more) orbiting the nucleus, the protons and neutrons
in the nucleus orbit around each other. Adding energy to them put them in
different quantum states (again, another question!) which orbit
differently. Add enough energy, and you begin to split the nucleus. Add
enough, and you can split the protons and neutrons into quarks! That's all
you can do to it-- you can put the nucleus in different quantum energy
states, or you can break it apart. The latter is what's done at places like
Fermilab, CERN, KEK, Brookhaven, and other labs around the world where
scientists study nuclear and particle physics.

So what's the answer to your question? Unfortunately, it's really that the
notions of "state" only have meaning for what's called bulk matter, or
macroscopic objects. Our ideas of state break down completely in the
quantum world that atoms, protons, neutrons and all the rest inhabit.

I hope this helps!

Current Queue | Current Queue for Physics | Physics archives

Try the links in the MadSci Library for more information on Physics.

MadSci Home | Information | Search | Random Knowledge Generator | MadSci Archives | Mad Library | MAD Labs | MAD FAQs | Ask a ? | Join Us! | Help Support MadSci

MadSci Network,
© 1995-2006. All rights reserved.