Matter - Definition in Physical Sciences

What Matter Means in Physics (With Examples)

One good definition of matter is that it has mass and takes up space.
One good definition of matter is that it has mass and takes up space. Alfred Pasieka, Getty Images

Matter has many definitions, but the most common is that it is any substance which has mass and occupies space. All physical objects are composed of matter, in the form of atoms, which are in turn composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons.

The idea that matter consisted of building blocks or particles originated with the Greek philosophers Democritus (470-380 BC) and Leucippus (490 BC).

Examples of Matter (and What Isn't Matter)

Matter is built from atoms.

The most basic atom, the isotope of hydrogen known as protium, is a single proton. So, although subatomic particles aren't always considered forms of matter by some scientists, you could consider protium to be the exception. Some people consider electrons and neutrons to also be forms of matter. Otherwise, any substance built of atoms consists of matter. Examples include:

  • Atoms (hydrogen, helium, californium, uranium)
  • Molecules (water, ozone, nitrogen gas, sucrose)
  • Ions (Ca2+, SO42-)
  • Polymers and Macromolecules (cellulose, chitin, proteins, DNA)
  • Mixtures (oil and water, salt and sand, air)
  • Complex Forms (a chair, a planet, a ball)

While protons, neutrons, and electrons are the building blocks of atoms, these particles are themselves based on fermions. Quarks and leptons typically aren't considered forms of matter, although they do fit certain definitions of the term. At most levels, it's simplest to state simply that matter consists of atoms.

Antimatter is still matter, although the particles annihilate ordinary matter when they contact each other. Antimatter exists naturally on Earth, although in extremely small quantities.

Then, there are things that either have no mass or at least have no rest mass. Things that are not matter include:

  • Light
  • Sound
  • Heat
  • Thoughts
  • Dreams
  • Emotions

Photons have no mass, so they are an example of something in physics that is not comprised of matter. They are also not considered "objects" in the traditional sense, as they cannot exist in a stationary state.

Phases of Matter

Matter can exist in various phases: solid, liquid, gas, or plasma. Most substances can transition between these phases based on the amount of heat the material absorbs (or loses). There are additional states or phases of matter, including Bose-Einstein condensates, fermionic condensates, and quark-gluon plasma.

Matter Versus Mass

Note that while matter has matter, the two terms are not exactly synonymous, at least in physics. Matter is not conserved, while mass is conserved in closed systems. According to the theory of special relativity, matter in a closed system may disappear. Mass, on the other hand, may never been created nor destroyed, although it can be converted into energy. The sum of mass and energy remains constant in a closed system. In physics, one way to distinguish between mass and matter is to define matter as a substance consisting of particles that exhibit rest mass. Even so, in physics and chemistry, matter exhibits wave-particle duality, so it has properties of both waves and particles.

Edited by Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D.