When it comes to states of matter, you probably remember growing up and learning all about solids, liquids, and gases.
But, do you know matter exists in more than three states? Matter can take on any number of weird and wonderful states.
All matter is made of smaller particles. Take water, for instance. If you zoomed in on an ice cube, you’d see a latticework of individual water molecules. If you zoomed in on a water molecule, you’d see three individual atoms: two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen. Those atoms, in turn, are made of even smaller parts: Hydrogen is made up of one proton and one electron, and oxygen is made up of eight protons, eight neutrons, and eight electrons. Protons and neutrons are made up of even smaller particles called quarks.
Matter moves from one state to another. The water in your ice cube is in a solid state. The molecules are packed tightly together so they are unable to move about very much which held its shape and keep its volume fixed.
If you heat the ice cube and melt it, you’d have water in a liquid state. The liquid molecules are not held in a regular arrangement but are still very close to each other so liquids have a definite volume but indefinite shape. A liquid will change shape to conform to its container.
Further heating that liquid water and you’ll get a gas. If unconfined, the particles of a gas will spread out indefinitely; if confined, the gas will expand to fill its container. Gas has no definite volume or shape.
Plasma is where the water example seizes up. It is not a common state of the matter here on Earth but may be the most common state of matter in the universe. Plasma is a hot ionized gas made up of highly charged particles. It is a form of matter that exists when atoms are in an excited state. They are so excited that they jump energy level and, in doing so, give off light. Plasma particles are spread out and move around randomly, but unlike gas, they contain some free ions and electrons, which give plasma its ability to conduct electricity.
Plasma is the most plentiful state in the observable universe, making up 99 percent of the visible universe. Stars, the jets that blast out of black holes and even parts of Earth’s atmosphere are made up of plasma. On Earth, plasmas are commonly found in some kinds of fluorescent lights and neon signs.
The four fundamental states of the matter discussed above are easily observable in nature. But there are plenty of other “non-classical” states of matter beyond those.
When you cool atoms to near absolute zero, you can get what’s known as a Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC), where all of those individual atoms unite into one object.
In 1995, using a combination of lasers and magnets, the two scientists Eric Cornell and Carl Weiman cooled a sample of rubidium to within a few degrees of absolute zero. At this extremely low temperature, molecular motion comes very close to stopping altogether. Since there is almost no kinetic energy being transferred from one atom to another, the atoms begin to clump together. There are no longer thousands of separate atoms, just one “super atom.” Light appears to slow down as it passes through a BEC, allowing the study of the particle/wave paradox. It’s possible that this stuff could form invisible stars that we’re mistaking for black holes.
Moreover, cooling things to very low temperatures also gives rise to a lot of super stuff like superconductors conduct electricity without resistance, superfluids which flow without friction, and supersolids which flow without friction but keep their shape.