School in a Book: Chemistry

“So that’s what stuff is.” That’s an important thought. It could be a breakthrough moment in one’s education. Don’t underestimate young children’s ability to grasp many basic chemistry concepts, either; the earlier they start thinking about the big questions, the more interested and less intimidated they’ll be by them later on.

Like most other subjects, science is best learned through conversation. Experiments are great, too, but they’re not always necessary. If like me you have little kids who can’t yet handle close proximity to anything magnetic, explosive or filled with water, choose a few scientific concepts to talk about per day, and send the older kid to a more hands-on science class. (Video demonstrations, like those on YouTube, are great, too.)

That said, if you can manage it, there’s a huge number of great science project ideas out there, and hands-on stuff is definitely a great memory aid.


Chemistry: The science of matter, including what it is and how it’s made

Chemical: Substance. This word is usually used when the chemical’s molecular structure and chemical properties are being discussed. Of course, the word “chemical” is also used to refer to inorganic, human-synthesized combinations of elements; however, this is a colloquial usage.

Matter: Anything that is made of particles, takes up space (has volume), and has mass. Matter is one of only two “things” in the universe. The other is energy.

Weight: A measure of the force of gravity on something. Weight changes relative to where in space an object is located; for example, a book weighs less on the moon than on the earth.

Mass: A measurement of something’s absolute heaviness (the amount of matter within it). Mass doesn’t change when the forces (such as the gravitational force) change. This is because mass is measured relative to the mass of one kilo of water. If this kilo of water were on the moon, and we compare it to a book, which is also on the moon, the number (plus or minus the kilo of water) is the same as it would be on Earth.

Density: The measurement of something’s mass per unit of volume. Dense objects are heavier than other, less dense objects that take up the same amount of space.

Particle: A bit of something that is still the original thing and not something else

The three states of matter: Solid, liquid and gas

Solid: A substance with a definite shape and definite volume

Liquid: A substance with definite volume but a varying shape. This category includes gels and other plasma-like substances.

Gas: A substance without a definite shape or definite volume. Because there is a great deal of space between the molecules in gases, gases can be compressed. (However, sometimes, when gases are compressed too much, they turn into a liquid, such as liquid nitrogen.) Note that air is not a gas, but a mixture of gases. The various gases aren’t chemically bonded to each other, and can be separated without breaking any chemical bonds.

Atoms: The building blocks of molecules. Each atom is made up of a nucleus containing protons and neutrons with electrons spinning around the nucleus. They also contain other subatomic particles and a great deal of empty space. (The space between subatomic particles in an atom is relatively similar to the space between heavenly bodies in the universe.) Atom types are determined by their chemical properties, which are determined by the number of protons in the atom. Also, since each element contains only one type of atom, each atom type corresponds with one element type. Note that whereas molecules can be easily split through everyday chemical reactions, atoms require extraordinary amounts of energy to split them. This is called atomic fission, and it is the basis of nuclear power. Also note that a sheet of paper is about one million atoms thick.

Subatomic particles: The incredibly tiny pieces of matter that make up atoms. They include protons, neutrons, electrons, quarks, and more. They cannot be separated from each other without using extraordinary amounts of energy.

Nucleus: The center part of an atom

Protons: The positively charged parts of an atom. These are located inside the nucleus. The number of protons in an atom is what determines the atom’s chemical properties and, therefore, its type. An atom’s type corresponds with its element and its placement on the Periodic Table of Elements. For example, the oxygen atom has eight protons. Its atomic number is eight. When only oxygen atoms bond together, they create more of the oxygen substance. This substance is called the oxygen element, because it is the pure form of oxygen. When oxygen combines with other elements, its chemical properties change and it becomes part of a different kind of substance. 

Neutrons: The parts of an atom that contain no charge. These are located inside the nucleus.

Electrons: The negatively charged parts of an atom. These are located outside the nucleus and spin around it.

Quark: The most well-known of the indescribably small particles that make up protons and neutrons. Like other subatomic particles, its existence is theoretical, as it is not directly observable in any way. Its behaviors are described in theoretical physics.

Element: A substance that contains only one kind of atom

Isotope: A different form of the same atom, with different number of neutrons. It has different physical properties but chemically it is the same.

Molecule: Any chemically bonded group of atoms, whether atoms of the same type (which form an element) or atoms of different types (which form a compound). Molecule bonds can only be broken through chemical change. 

Compound: A material that contains two or more elements that are chemically bonded together. The atoms of the elements can’t be separated by physical means and the end product has different properties from the original elements. For example, a baked cake, whose molecular structure has changed through heat.

Mixture: A combination of ingredients that are not chemically bonded and can, therefore, be separated through physical means. For example, cake batter, which is a simple combination of ingredients that have not experienced molecular change.  

Periodic Table of the Elements: A chart listing each known element, organized by these elements’ atomic numbers

Atomic number: The number of protons in an atom, which indicates the atom’s chemical properties and, by extension, its substance type (element). The number of protons in an atom is the same as the number of electrons in an atom. 

Mass number: The total number of protons and neutrons in an atom

Chemical bonding: The joining of atoms to create molecules. Atoms share electrons to form molecules. They do this to fill their outer shell and thus become more stable.

Chemical reaction: When the atoms in substance(s) rearrange to form new substances. Example: Baking a cake. Heat and electricity are often used to break the bonds.

Chemical symbol: The letters that represent the atoms of a particular element

Chemical formula: A combination of chemicals to form a substance, which is usually written using chemical symbols; for example, CO2, H2O, etc.

Ion: An unstable atom or molecule whose net charge is either less than or greater than zero

Enzymes: Catalysts that speed up chemical reactions in living things

Covalent bond: A chemical bond formed when atoms share electrons. Each atom still has its proper total number, but some of its electrons are attracted to the other atoms and stick there. Most non-metal elements are formed with covalent bonds.

Double bond: A chemical bond formed when atoms share two electrons each with each other

Ionic bond: A chemical bond formed when an atom gains or loses electrons

Metallic bond: A chemical bond between metals where free electrons travel between them

Electrolysis: The separating of individual elements in a compound by passing an electric current through it when it is molten or in a solution

Salt: Any metal and non-metal bonded together. Salts have a crystal structure. There are many different kinds, not just table salt.

Organic compound: A compound that includes carbon. All living things contain organic compounds, and many can be made artificially. They are used to create fabrics, medicines, plastics, paints, cosmetics and more.

Fermentation: A chemical reaction that produces alcoholic drinks. It is caused by fungi, which produce enzymes.

Metal: An element or an alloy that is shiny in appearance; conducts heat and electricity; and remains solid at room temperature (except mercury). Some, like iron and nickel, are also magnetic. Note that the definition of the term “metal” is not exact, and changes as its application changes. Some non-metal elements become metals at very high temperatures.

Alloy: A mixture of two or more metals

Semiconductor: A semi-metal element

Carbon monoxide: A poisonous gas formed when fuels burn in a place with limited air (oxygen), such as an engine

Oxygen: The element that helps plants and animals release energy from food. In the human body it is one of the most important elements the blood sends the cell. As blood flows over body cells, oxygen and other nutrients are “let in” and waste products are deposited into the blood. It is the third most abundant element in the universe.

Hydrogen: An element that can form compounds with most other elements. Water is formed when hydrogen is burned in air. It is the most abundant element in the universe. (Helium is the second.)

Carbon: The element that occurs in all known organic life. It is the fourth most abundant element in the universe and is found in more compounds than any other element.

Soluble: Able to dissolve in liquid

Insoluble: Unable to dissolve in liquid

Solution: The liquid that results after dissolving something into it

Evaporation: Water vapor that is breaking free from the rest of the liquid

Condensation: The water vapor that collects back into drops on a solid. It comes from the air.

Water vapor: The gas that forms when water evaporates

Corrosion: The damaging chemical reaction that occurs when metal comes into contact with oxygen. The damage happens because oxide forms on the metal.

Acid: A chemical found in various substances that donates protons or hydrogen ions and/or accepts electrons. These chemicals taste sour when found in liquid solutions.

Base: A chemical found in various substances that accept protons from hydrogen ions. This can neutralize acids. Combining acids and bases produces water and salts.

pH: A measure of how acidic or basic a liquid substance is. A pH of 7 is neutral, containing no acid or base chemical. A pH higher than 7 indicates the presence of a base chemical and a pH lower than 7 indicates the presence of an acid chemical.

pH scale: The 14-point scale used to measure whether a liquid solution is basic, acidic or neutral

Endothermic reaction: A chemical process that absorbs heat

Exothermic reaction: A chemical process that emits heat

Oxidation: A chemical reaction in which oxygen is added, causing a substance to change in some way. An example is the presence of rust in metal exposed to water.

Reduction: A chemical reaction in which oxygen is removed

Oxidation-reduction (redux) reaction: A chemical reaction in which one substance undergoes reduction, causing another to undergo oxidation. This happens because the substance undergoing reduction donates electrons to the other substance.


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