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Physical Properties of Matter

Attributes that do not need to be measured in order to describe matter.

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Physical Properties

Drag racing car

Credit: Simon Speed (Wikimedia: Simonxag)
Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DragsterBedfordCentre.JPG
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

Why are drag car standards constantly reinforced?

Drag racing is a highly competitive (and expensive) sport. There are a variety of classes of vehicles, ranging from stock classes (depending on car weight, engine size, and degree of engine modification) all the way up to the Top Fuel class with weights of over two thousand pounds and capable of top speeds of well over 300 miles per hour at the end of the quarter-mile. The standards for each class are well defined and frequent checks are made of engine dimensions and components to ensure that the rules are followed.

Physical Properties

A physical property is a characteristic of a substance that can be observed or measured without changing the identity of the substance. Silver is a shiny metal that conducts electricity very well. It can be molded into thin sheets, a property called malleability. Salt is dull and brittle and conducts electricity when it has been dissolved into water, which it does quite easily. Physical properties of matter include color, hardness, malleability, solubility, electrical conductivity, density, melting points, and boiling points.

For the elements, color does not vary much from one element to the next. The vast majority of elements are colorless, silver, or gray. Some elements do have distinctive colors: sulfur and chlorine are yellow, copper is (of course) copper-colored, and elemental bromine is red.

Density can be a very useful parameter for identifying an element. Of the materials that exist as solids at room temperature, iodine has a very low density compared to zinc, chromium, and tin. Gold has a very high density, as does platinum.

Hardness helps determine how an element (especially a metal) might be used. Many elements are fairly soft (silver and gold, for example) while others (such as titanium, tungsten, and chromium) are much harder. Carbon is an interesting example of hardness. In graphite (the “lead” found in pencils) the carbon is very soft, while the carbon in a diamond is roughly seven times as hard.

Graphite is used in pencils

Credit: User:Infratec/Wikimedia Commons
Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sharpened_Pencil.jpg
License: CC BY-NC 3.0


A diamond ring

Credit: User:Ikkyu2/Wikimedia Commons
Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tiffany_mount.gif
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

Diamond ring.[Figure3]

Melting and boiling points are somewhat unique identifiers, especially of compounds. In addition to giving some idea as to the identity of the compound, important information can be obtained about the purity of the material.



Is That Really Gold? Archimedes and Density

How do you determine the density of an irregularly shaped object? Learn how Archimedes did this thousands of years ago with just a beaker, water, and some simple math. 




  • A physical property is a characteristic of a substance that can be observed or measured without changing the identity of the substance.
  • Physical properties include color, density, hardness, and melting and boiling points.


  1. What is a physical property?
  2. What color are most metals?
  3. Is titanium harder or softer than gold?

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Image Attributions

  1. [1]^ Credit: Simon Speed (Wikimedia: Simonxag); Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DragsterBedfordCentre.JPG; License: CC BY-NC 3.0
  2. [2]^ Credit: User:Infratec/Wikimedia Commons; Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sharpened_Pencil.jpg; License: CC BY-NC 3.0
  3. [3]^ Credit: User:Ikkyu2/Wikimedia Commons; Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tiffany_mount.gif; License: CC BY-NC 3.0

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