Of Particular Significance

Molecules and Matter

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

ON 05/29/2012

[Here we go: the first in the promised “structure of matter” series, which will trickle out over the coming weeks…]

In any of the world’s great libraries, the rooms and shelves of books stretch on seemingly without end. The tomes in the United States’ Library of Congress number in the tens of millions. Each of them presents a distinct story, or a detailed analysis, or a historical document, with its own individual meaning. Yet these millions of books written in the English language are constructed from a mere few tens of thousands of words, and each of these words is formed from a combination of just 26 letters — the letters A through Z.

Meanwhile, we live surrounded by a vast and astonishing diversity of materials — not the least fantastic of which are the many types of biological structures that make up our own bodies and those of all other animals, plants, and other living creatures. The planet on which we live is made from all sorts of rocks, some hard and brittle, some malleable, of many colors and textures. In addition to water we encounter alcohols, acids, sugars and oils of various forms. The food cooking on our stoves produces all sorts of aromas for us to inhale, floating amid the air we breathe.  To salts and chalks and alloys, we must add new, synthetic materials, such as the many types of plastics. But it is important to remember that the vast contents of this Library of Materials are all constructed from a smaller (though still very large) assortment of molecules, themselves formed from a mere 100 or so atoms — the elements H through U (hydrogen through uranium, and beyond).

The complexity of a written language like English rests on words, and the complexity of materials begins with molecules. Click here to read more.

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