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.

Basic Chemistry

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

Chemicals: Substances. This word is usually used when the chemistry of substances is being discussed, such as the chemical’s molecules and chemical bonds. The word “chemical” is also often used to refer to inorganic, human-synthesized combinations of elements; however, this is a colloquial usage.

Matter: All stuff, both visible and invisible. Matter is one of only two “things” in the universe. The other is energy.

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

The three states of matter: Solid, liquid and gas

Solids: Substances with definite shapes and volumes

Liquids: Substances with definite volumes but varying shapes. This category includes gels and other plasma-like substances.

Gases: Substances with no definite shapes or volumes. Because there is a great deal of space between the molecules in gases, they 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 tiny pieces of matter that make up molecules. They each contain protons, neutrons, electrons, a nucleus and a great deal of empty space.

Each known type of atom is listed on the Periodic Table of the Elements. Each atom type corresponds with one element type. This is because each element only contains one type of atom, and that atom type is what determines its chemical properties.

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.

A sheet of paper is about one million atoms thick.

Subatomic particles: The incredibly tiny pieces of matter that make up atoms. 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 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.

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: 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: Separating 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 compounds: Compounds that include 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.

Alcohol: Organic compounds that contain carbon, oxygen and hydrogen

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

Semiconductor: A semi-metal element

Main metals (all those used in manufacturing): aluminum, brass, bronze, calcium, chromium, copper, cupronickel, gold, iron, lead, magnesium, mercury, platinum, plutonium, potassium, silver, sodium

Main alloys: Solder, steel, tin, titanium, tungsten, uranium, vanadium, zinc

Crude oil: The raw material from which fuels like oil, fuel, gas are obtained. It is a fossil fuel that is often found in rock reservoirs under the seabed.

Plastic: An easily-molded synthetic polymers made from the organic compounds found in crude oil.

Polymer: A substance made of many small molecules joined together to make long chains. Some are synthetic (nylon), while others are natural (hair, rubber, wool, silk, etc.).

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 things 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.

Carbon dating: The method for finding how much time has passed since something died by measuring how much radiation it’s still giving off.

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.

Decomposition: The natural erosion of dead organic materials.

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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