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What Are Elements?

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  • 0:05 Elements Are Everywhere
  • 0:48 What Is An Element?
  • 1:56 Elements Are Written…
  • 2:54 Elements As The…
  • 4:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Laura Nappi
Look around you. What do you see? Elements are everywhere. They are the building blocks of all matter on Earth. In this lesson, we will discuss what an element is, how elements are written as symbols, and how elements are the building blocks of all matter.

Elements Are Everywhere

Did you know when you are breathing you are actually inhaling elements? The air you breathe is made up of many elements like oxygen, nitrogen, and argon. Elements are everywhere. They are the building blocks of everything on Earth: your dog, the mountains, your car, your eyes, and, yes, even beer. In this lesson, we will discuss what an element is, how elements are written as symbols, and how they are the building blocks of all matter.

What Is an Element?

An element is a pure substance that cannot be broken down by chemical methods into simpler components. For example, the element gold cannot be broken down into anything other than gold. If you kept hitting gold with a hammer, the pieces would get smaller, but each piece will always be gold.

You can think of each kind of element having its own unique fingerprint making it different than other elements. Elements consist of only one type of atom. An atom is the smallest particle of an element that still has the same properties of that element. All atoms of a specific element have exactly the same chemical makeup, size, and mass.

There are a total of 118 elements. Many elements occur naturally on Earth; however, some are created in a laboratory by scientists by nuclear processes.

Elements Are Written as Symbols

Instead of writing the whole elemental name, elements are often written as a symbol. For example, O is the symbol for oxygen, C is the symbol for carbon, and H is the symbol for hydrogen. Not all elements have just one letter as the symbol, but have two letters - like Al is the symbol for aluminum and Ni is the symbol for nickel. The first letter is always capitalized, but the second letter is not. Symbol names do not always match the letters in the elemental name. For example, Fe is the symbol for iron and Au is the symbol for gold. These symbol names are derived from the Latin names for those elements.

Elements as the Building Blocks of Matter

Elements are the building blocks of all matter. Matter is anything that takes up space. It includes everything we can see as well as things we cannot see, like air.

Elements are the ingredients that make up the entire world we see. Similar to cooking, the amount and types of ingredients you combine can produce an entirely different result. For example, if you combine sugar, flour, butter, and egg you get delicious cookies. But if you were to start over and combine just sugar, flour, and add milk you get a very different result; you get yummy frosting.

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