Solids, Gases, and Liquids

Solids, liquids, and gases (or gasses) are the three basic states of matter. Plasma is the 4th and Bose-Einstein condensates is the 5th, but most people are comfortable knowing the basic three. The easiest way to remember the difference between the three is to think of water. Note that water is essential for almost every living thing to exist.


We’ll start with water as a liquid because no matter where you live you will be familiar with this state of matter. It chemical composition is H2O. This chemically represents two Hydrogen (H) atoms and one Oxygen (O) atom that are chemically bonded together to form what we see, smell, touch, taste, and hear as water. When you stop and think about how amazing it is that this liquid chemical composition can actually be heard, you should appreciate water and Chemistry more. You can’t hear iron or sodium.


Water as a solid, ice, is the next topic of discussion. The chemical composition is the same, but it has a crystalline structure. We often hear about ice crystals that form in the winter, and snow is a crystalline structure of water. There are two crystal shapes of ice, hexagonal (5 sides) and cubic or diamond shape. But just holding a piece of solid water in your hand shows that this structure is easily changed from the heat of your body.


Finally, there is water as a gas, which is in the form of water vapor. The simplest way to see water vapor is to heat a pot of water to boiling and watch the steam rise. Once again, heat is the dynamic that is responsible for changing water from one state of matter to another. You actually breathe in water vapor from the air around you.


So what have we learned here? That Chemistry is really not that hard when you look at the world around you and keep things simple. Sure, there is a lot more to Chemistry than just water, and to give you fair warning there is also a significant amount of Math involved when moving forward to Advanced Chemistry topics. But we are just covering the basics here, so there is no need to panic. You don’t have to worry about being Einstein because he was much more into Physics than Chemistry.


Where Chemistry becomes challenging is understanding the various interactions of the elements at an atomic level. At the beginning we discuss about what we can see with the naked eye, but equipment such as electron microscopes are required to start to solve some of the more challenging aspects of the science. I don’t think any of you have an electron microscope at home, so going to a laboratory is a trip you will have to take to see the real challenges offered by Chemistry.

Accidental Discoveries that Changed the World

I would like to say that based on my last blog, that Chemistry and science is very neat and orderly because of the Scientific Method. But I can’t. In fact, some of the most important discoveries the world has been able to use in everyday life came about purely accident. We will just look at a few here, especially those that are about Chemistry.


Are Pharmacists Chemists? Well, not so much today but back in the 19th century they were known to conduct some of their own experiments. John Walker, a British pharmacist, was stirring a batch of chemicals and saw a dried lump of something on the end of his mixing stick. Naturally, he went to scape it off and the result was sparks and flame, creating the first (fire) match.


Super Glue is something we absolutely need in a pinch, but it was the result of a failed experiment. Harry Coover, Jr. was in the process of experimenting with specific chemical compounds known as acrylates. His experiments led him to trying to create a heat resistant coating for cockpits on jets, and when he took two plastic lenses and spread this new acrylate between them, he could not separate them. What he had expected to happen, that he would be able to separate the two pieces for further examination, never happened. It took a little thought and ingenuity, but Coover would market this accidental product as Super Glue a few years later.


This last one is something that is non-chemical but everyone should be familiar with. Text messaging. Long ago in 1987, mobile phones (not smartphones) were being worked on by European engineers with the idea of making them smaller and more portable. Back then, some cell phones were the size of a World War II walkie-talkie. (That is such a cute name!) The primary goal was to create a system that would work throughout all of Europe. To test the system, a script was written that allowed the engineers to send short messages to one another. Voila! SMS texting was born.


What does all this show you? That you should always be looking for opportunities in your everyday life to see something that everyone else has missed. As a chemistry student, applying the scientific method is essential for you to become proficient at Chemistry, but in the real world everything does not always end up the way we think.

Scientific Method and How to Use it at Home

I hope you saw from the first blog that one of my goals is to make Chemistry and science easy to understand. The essential thing to know about Chemistry is that it has certain rules that have been developed about the way things work. In a broad sense, this is called the Scientific Method. We will be talking about that here, and how you can use it at home. This will help you use it throughout your whole life as you continue to become more knowledgeable about Chemistry and science.

There are a series of steps that have to be followed in a specific order for you to be able to say that any question you ask has been properly solved using the Scientific Method. So let’s begin by choosing something that is a chore around your house that you have to do.

Taking out the garbage.

  1. Ask a question.

That question is likely to be ‘why do I have to take out the garbage’. Asking why something is the way it is often is one of the best questions a student of science can ask.

  1. Do background research.

You can ask what will or will not happen if you choose not to take it out. For examples, besides your parents getting upset with you (a cause and effect concept) you can research things like rodent infestation, vermin, odors, or the decomposition of organic matter. These latter two topics are related to Chemistry. Learning what is already known will save you oodles of time in deciding how best to answer the question.

  1. Construct a hypothesis.

This is a scientific way of saying, “If I do this, then that will happen.” Here, you might say if you let the garbage pile up then the organic matter will begin undergoing a chemical change. This part of the Scientific Method should be stated in a positive way (if I do this, rather than, if I don’t do this) and needs to be specific and clear.

  1. Create an experiment to test the hypothesis.

It is not recommended that you let the garbage pile up at home, but if you had your own laboratory you could set aside a contained space that would let you see and measure what happens to the organic matter. You might see that a Hostess Twinkie exhibits to change over a 30 day period, while the McDonald’s French Fries actually start turning color. Both are valid results of the experiment, even if nothing happens.

  1. Analyze the data and draw conclusions.

There are a few steps before and after this one, but right now it is OK to leave them be. We will get to them later. Notice that you have to have data, meaning whatever you are seeing happen has to be measurable and can be recorded for others to see. Doing this means that other people will be able to see not only what you have done, but how you did and check to see if they can produce the same results.

That wasn’t so bad, was it? This blog is about Chemistry, but you can see how the Scientific Method applies to Biology, Etymology, Psychology, and many other sciences. No matter what area of science you choose to pursue as a career (I’m hoping it’s Chemistry) you will use the same method to create and conduct experiments, and draw conclusions for others to test.