8th Grade Lab Science (Cribb & Duane)
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Chapter 5:

What’s the Matter?

Characteristic Properties of Matter



What makes up “stuff”?  You probably remember that all “stuff” consists of atoms and molecules.  Later this term we’ll detail atoms and molecules, but right now we’re going to really figure out what “stuff” is. 

Let’s begin by trying to describe “stuff”.  If you had an unknown substance in front of you, how would you describe it?  How would your descriptions help you identify it? You could describe its size, its shape, whether it is soft or hard, smooth or rough, whether it would float in water or not.  What color is it?  Does it have an odor?  These questions ask to describe this object, but they really ask what are its characteristics.  All “stuff” has characteristics that help identify it.  Those characteristics may differ between objects but “stuff” shares the same qualities.  They are all forms of matter.  Matter is what the world is made of.  All objects consist of matter.  Matter is “stuff”.

Matter takes up space and has a certain size.  It is anything that has mass and volume.   It is something that you could see, smell, feel, or even taste.  It is something that you can hold in your hand.  Matter itself consists of various atoms and molecules, can be pure or impure, seen or not seen, living or non-living.  Plants, animals, rocks, water, salt, gold, air, oxygen are all examples of matter.  They all consist of atoms and molecules and they all take up space.  They are all “stuff”.   Yet examples of stuff listed above are all different.  They all have different characteristics or properties that can be used to identify them.  These characteristics of matter describe the object – or define the object.  Characteristics of matter can be either physical properties or chemical properties. 



Physical characteristics are properties that describe how the object looks, feels, tastes, etc.  They are descriptions of what it is.  Physical characteristics of matter include its mass, weight, volume, and density.  It also specifically describes its odor, shape, texture, and hardness.  In addition, physical properties describe whether the object is a solid, a liquid, or a gas – its phase of matter at room temperature.  These physical characteristics are described below:


Mass – Mass is a general property of matter that is the amount of matter it an object.  In other words, it is the amount of “stuff” there is.  It is easy to confuse the terms “mass” with “weight” but they are fundamentally different properties.  The mass of an object does not change from place to place.  You will measure mass using a triple beam balance and the units you will use are grams (g) and sometimes kilograms (kg).


Weight – Weight is not mass, but all objects have weight because they also have mass.  Boy does that sound confusing!  The distinction is important because weight is determined by gravity, while mass is not.

The weight of an object is determined by the force of the pull of gravity on the object.  Technically speaking, since gravity is a force, weight is a force. 

Because weight is based on the force of gravity, an object's weight may change from place to place.  If you weigh 120 lbs on Earth, your weight will be 20 lbs on the moon, since the Earth’s gravitational force is 6 times stronger than that of the moon.  You don’t need to diet, just change planets if you want to lose weight!  If your mass on earth is 60 kg however, you will still have a mass of 60 kg on the moon, so if you want to lose mass, cut out those fatty foods and try a little exercise!  To measure weight you need to use a spring scale.  You may know how many pounds (lb) you weigh, but the pound is not the standard unit for weight.  In science, the standard unit for weight is called the Newton (N).  


Volume – Volume describes how much space matter occupies.  It is not how much “stuff” there is, though that definition is a common mistake that students make.  The amount of space that an object takes up is the object’s volume.  It is a little tricky to measure the volume of gasses, but to measure the volume of a liquid, you will use a graduated cylinder for precise measurements, and a beaker or flask for less precise measurements.  The standard units that you will use are milliliters (mL), liters (L) and cubic centimeters (cm3or cc).  You will measure the volume of regular shaped objects using a metric ruler and calculating the length x width x height.  The volume of irregular shaped objects is measured using water displacement.


Density – Matter is anything that has mass and volume.  Scientists use those two properties to calculate the density of specific matter.  Density is the mass per unit volume of an object and it allows you to compare different types of matter.  Let me explain.  Which is “heavier” – lead or wood?  That is an ill-phrased question.  If you had a flake of lead from a pencil and a baseball bat made of wood, the wood would be heavier.  But if you had equal volumes of wood and lead, the lead would be heavier.  The proper way to phrase that question is – Which has a higher density – lead or wood?  To answer that you need to know the volume of the object in addition to the mass.  The density of a specific kind of matter is a property that helps identify it and distinguish it from all other kinds of matter.  Just ask Archimedes – the Greek philosopher of “Eureka” fame!  Since density is mass per unit volume you will need to measure both the mass and the volume of an object in order to calculate the density using the following formula:


Density = Mass / Volume


The standard unit for mass is grams (g) and the standard unit for volume is milliliters (mL).  So density is expressed as gram per milliliter (g / mL) or grams per cubic centimeter (g / cm3).  Scientists also compare the density of an object to the density of water, which is 1 g / mL.  This comparison is called specific gravity and is expressed as a ratio.


Table 5.1 Densities of some Materials

material density in g / cm3 material density in g / cm3
hydrogen 0.00009 aluminum 2.7
oxygen 0.0014 iron 7.9
water 1.0 gold 19.3


Solubility - Another physical property of a substance describes how well a substance dissolves in another substance.  Dissolving is a physical process.  If an object dissolves, that substance is soluble.  Solubility is a measure of how easily the substance dissolves in water.  You will measure the solubility of substances later this term.



Physical properties – mass, volume density, odor, color, hardness etc, are properties that can be observed without changing the identity or essence of the substance.  Yet the same substance can have a different appearance.  Think of water, a substance that is fairly common, and that you as a living thing, cannot do without.  Ice, liquid water, and steam or water vapor all have a different appearance, but they are all the same substance.  As you know, a water molecule consists of hydrogen and oxygen.  That does not change whether water appears as solid ice, liquid water, or gaseous vapor.  These states are different phases.  The main phases of matter are solid, liquid, and gas, and matter can exist in any of these phases depending upon other factors.  What are those factors that determine the phase of matter in which a substance exists?  The primary ones that we will experiment with include temperature and pressure.  Phases of matter are technically “energy states of matter”.  Matter exists in a particular phase depending upon how fast the particles that make them up are moving and far apart they are from each other.


Solids – An ice cube, a pencil, a shaker of salt, and a metal coin are all solids.  They all share two important characteristics.  Solids have a definite shape and a definite volume.  The particles that make up a solid are packed tightly together and remain in a fixed position.  They vibrate back and forth in their fixed places.  This allows a solid to keep its shape since the particles cannot move from their places and flow around each other.  Solids that form a regular, repeating pattern with their particles are called crystals.


Liquids – Particles in a liquid are close together but they do not remain in a fixed position – they are free to move.  The particles of a liquid are moving much faster than those in a solid. As a result, they do not have a definite shape.  Instead, liquids take the shape of its container.  I liquid in a cube is square in shape, but the same liquid in a jar is round.  Although liquids do not have a definite shape, they do have a definite volume.  A 2 liter bottle of Coca Cola or Pepsi has the same volume if it is poured into a pitcher – same volume but different shape.  Even though particles in a liquid are always close to each other (always touching) they flow around each other.  Not all liquids flow as easily however – try pouring water and then honey to see the difference.  The measure of how easily a liquid flows is called viscosity.


Gases - Gases have neither a definite shape nor a definite volume.  A gas fills all the available space in the container, regardless of all the size or shape of the container.  This is because the particles in a gas are moving very rapidly and are spread apart.  There is a lot of empty space between these particles.  Some move as fast as 500 m / second!  These gas particles are constantly whizzing around and bumping into each other and the walls of the container – they may undergo 10 billion collisions each second!  The volume and temperature of gases depend upon the pressure.  The pressure of a gas is the measure of the number of collisions between particles.  The temperature of the gas also determines the pressure, as particles move faster as temperature rises.  Thus, there are more collision and a higher pressure.  We’ll focus more on the effects of temperature in this class.



Science uses a technical vocabulary to describe phenomena.  Despite the “technical / intimidating” sound of the word “kinetic”, the kinetic theory is actually pretty simple.  It is an explanation of how particles in matter behave.  Because of that, you can accurately predict what is happening to the particles of a solid, liquid, or gas.  The word “kinetic” means motion.  The kinetic theory is as follows:

1.       All matter is composed of small particles (atoms & molecules)

2.     These particles are in constant, random motion.

3.     These particles are colliding with each other and the walls of the container.

Applying this theory, you can describe the motion of particles in a solid, liquid, and gas.  To visualize the kinetic theory think of each particle as a tennis ball.  As a gas, the tennis balls are bouncing off the walls of the room.  As a liquid, they are rolling around each other in a small container.  As a solid, they remain fixed and vibrating in a tennis canister.  Applying energy, in other words, increasing the temperature, makes the tennis balls move even faster.  This continues until something else happens.



As mentioned earlier, matter can exist as either a solid, liquid, or gas at different times depending upon other factors.  Hydrogen hydroxide – a technical term for the substance you know as water, exists as a solid – ice, as a liquid – water, and as a gas – steam or vapor.  The phase of matter of water is determined by the amount of energy applied to the substance.  Temperature is not a measure of the amount of energy but it is a sufficient indicator of energy.  The higher the temperature, the more energy there is.  Either adding energy (increasing the temperature) or taking energy away (decreasing the temperature) causes matter to change from one phase to another. 

For an example, let’s start with a block of ice in your freezer.  Like all solids, the particles in a block of ice remain fixed and are vibrating back and forth.  You may also notice that a block of ice is cold, a characteristic of a low energy state.  Take the ice out and sit it on the kitchen counter.  As the ice warms to room temperature, the particles in the solid ice vibrate even faster until they break free of their fixed positions and flow around each other.  You can’t actually witness this since the particles themselves are way too small, but you can observe solid ice changing into liquid water – the phase change called melting. 

Now collect the water, put it in a pot and heat it over the stove.  The particles in the liquid move faster and faster as its heated (temperature increases) until they are moving so fast that they need to break free from being close to each other spread out to move even faster.  In this case, the individual water particles break away from each other and bounce off the containers, the ceiling, and each moving at rates up to 500 m / s and colliding with other things about 10 billion times each second.  Again, the action of individual particles is invisible to you but you will see the pot bubble and vapor emerge from the liquid.  Keep the pot on  the stove for enough time and you’ll eventually lose all the water.  This phase change is called boiling.

These phase changes are examples of physical changes that do not alter the physical properties of the substance.  The size and shape of the substances are being changed but the identity or essence of the substance remains the same.  The phase changes of matter are melting, freezing (solidifying), boiling (vaporizing), condensing, and sublimation.


Melting & Freezing – Melting and freezing refer to phase changes between liquids and solids. The melting of a solid occurs as the substance absorbs heat.  The particles in the solid begin to break down and flow around each other.  The temperature at which a solid melts (changes from a solid to a liquid) is called the melting point.  Melting point is a physical characteristic that helps identify the substance.  The melting point of ice is 0 C (32 F) and the melting point of table salt is 801 C, while that of a diamond is 3700 C.


The opposite phase change, that of a liquid into a solid, is called freezing or solidifying.  Freezing occurs as the substance loses energy and the particles slow down and begin to fall into a fixed position.  The freezing point of a substance is the temperature at which this phase change occurs.  It is the same temperature as the melting point.  In other words, the melting point and the freezing point of water is 0 C.  Whether water is freezing or ice is melting depends upon whether energy is absorbed (temperature increasing) or whether energy is taken away (temperature decreasing).


Boiling, Condensation, and Sublimation – Vaporization is the change of a substance from a liquid to a gas.  Particles absorb enough energy to move fast enough to break away from each other.  Two forms of vaporization are evaporation and boiling.  Evaporation involves the vaporization of a liquid only on the surface.  Evaporation is not totally temperature dependent.  Boiling involves all of the liquids’ particles changing into a gas phase, not just the surface particles.  While a liquid boils, the energy absorbed causes all of the particles to move so fast that they need to break away from each other.  The boiling point is the temperature at which as liquid changes from a liquid to a gas.  Table salt’s boiling point is 1413 C, while the boiling point of a diamond is 4200 C.

The opposite phase change is called condensation.  Gaseous water in the atmosphere condensing on objects is called dew.

Some substances skip the liquid phase and can change from a solid directly to a gas.  These substances go through the process of sublimation.  Dry ice is a substance that is sublime.  Dry ice is a solid form of carbon dioxide that changes directly to a gaseous form of carbon dioxide as it absorbs energy.  Dry ice is itself, very cold, and can be used to keep other items cold.  Because dry ice goes through sublimation, it is considered sublime.  Water in the solid form of snow (tiny ice crystals) also is sublime.  Think of a snow bank in winter becoming smaller over time.  Even without melting, a snow bank would carry out sublimation and eventually disappear.


Data Table 5.2: Melting Points and Boiling Points of Substances

  Melting Point (° C) Boiling Point (° C)
Water  0° C 100 ° C
Isopropyl Alcohol - 88.5° C 82.4 ° C
Naphthalene (moth ball flakes) 80.6 ° C 218 ° C



As previously noted, heat and temperature play an important role in phase changes.  Heat is a form of energy, so as you heat an object, you are giving that object more energy.  One of your first tasks in the lab will be to determine what specifically happens to the temperature of a substance as it is heated and undergoes a phase change.  To investigate this, you will heat substances, make observations, and record the temperature at regular intervals.  You will summarize your data on graph that details what happens to temperature as phase changes occur.  That graph is also called a phase change curve or a heating curve of a substance.  Make sure you are able to describe the shape of a phase change curve.

Apply the kinetic theory of matter to help analyze a phase change curve.  Do you remember that all particles are moving?  As heat is added, those particles move faster and faster.  Temperature is a measure that actually indicates how fast those particles are moving, so as the particles’ speed increases, so does the temperature.  Technically speaking, temperature measures the average kinetic energy of a substance. 

While a substance undergoes a phase change, the additional heat energy causes the particles to break away from each other instead of move faster.  This additional heat energy is called latent energy.  As a result, the temperature remains the same as you observe a substance changing from one phase to another.  The temperature stays constant until all of the particles in the substance have changed into the new phase.   Once they all have changed phase, the additional heat energy is used to make the particles’ speed increase and the temperature will rise once again.  When you graph the temperature of a heated substance on a phase change curve, the part of the curve that shows no temperature change is called the plateau.  The point at which a phase change curve plateaus is use to determine the boiling point or melting / freezing point of a substance.  In this class, you will conduct phase changes with substances such as water, isopropanol (isopropyl alcohol), and moth ball flakes.



A substance’s density, boiling and melting points, color, hardness etc. are all physical attributes.  They are physical properties of the substance.  Sometimes, physical properties are not sufficient by themselves to help identify unknown elements.  You may need to rely upon the chemical properties of the substance as well to identify it.  Chemical properties describe how a substance can change into other new substances.  Another way of phrasing that, chemical properties describe how reactive the substance is with other substances, and sometimes even tell what specific substances with which it reacts. 

Examples of chemical properties include flammability – the ability to burn.  Technically, burning is a chemical reaction that involves a chemical reaction with oxygen and a release of energy.  Other chemical properties involve the use of chemical indicators and pH detectors.  You will experiment with many different kinds of chemical indicators in this class.  In both cases, the substance being tested reacts with another substance.  The changes that substances undergo as they react with other substances to create new substances are called chemical changes.  A chemical reaction is an example of a chemical change.  The chemical properties of substances describe a substances ability to change into a different substance – in other words, undergo a chemical change via a chemical reaction. 

Physical properties are different from chemical properties because physical properties can be observed or measured without changing the identity of the substance.  Chemical properties on the other hand always involve a chemical changes of a substances into other "new" substances.


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http://www.miamisci.org/af/sln/phases/ - observe molecular diagrams of water, copper, and nitrogen at different temperatures.

http://www.thetech.org/exhibits_events/noyce_center/topics/50a.html    TheTech from Weblearner: This site contains sites about the structure of matter, phases of matter, properties of matter, and compounds & mixtures.


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Haber-Schaim, Abegg, Dodge, and Walter, Introductory to Physical Science.  Prentice Hall Inc, Englewood, NJ, 1982.

Hurd, Silver, Bacher, and McLaughlin, Prentice Hall Physical Science.  Prentice Hall Inc, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1988.

McLaughlin, Thompson, and Zike, Glencoe Science Physical Science.  Glencoe / McGraw Hill, Columbus, OH, 2002.