ELI5; why are we taught that atoms are the building blocks of matter when atoms are made up of smaller things?



ELI5; why are we taught that atoms are the building blocks of matter when atoms are made up of smaller things?

In: Chemistry

Because those two points are independent of each other.

Atoms *are* the building blocks of matter.

Atoms are *also* composed of sub-atomic particles.

Atoms are the smallest unit of matter that have the same properties as the thing they make up. A single atom of hydrogen is still hydrogen. Anything that makes up an atom behaves differently than the atom it‘s a part of.

Because an atom is the smallest unit that maintains chemical properties.

Or actually ELI5
Atoms are the smallest things that act like themselves.

Atoms are the smallest parts of an element that are still that element. An oxygen atom is still oxygen, and a sodium atom is still sodium.

Not only that, but they are the smallest pieces that you can easily divide an object into. (The word “atom” itself comes from the Greek for “not cut”.) Breaking an atom into its component particles permanently requires a particle accelerator, whereas you can typically separate the atoms of a piece of an element from one another with an ordinary knife or even your hands.

You can think of atoms as being like Lego bricks and subatomic particles as the molecules of plastic that the bricks are made of. Dismantling a Lego model is much easier than breaking the blocks up into molecules.

So just as Lego bricks are the building blocks of Lego models, atoms are the building blocks of matter.

EDIT: grammar, clarification

There are a couple of reasons for this. For one, it has become tradition. They used to be the smallest units we knew about. That being said, we know that’s not the case now, but it would kind of silly to introduce young students to subatomic stuff because it gets WEIRD. Subatomic science is tricky and lots of fancy math and doesn’t make any sense without at least bachelor’s degree level math. It’s not intuitive and puzzles most people. If someone says they really get quantum physics, they are lying. So they are the smallest sensible/useful thing to learn about in school

Because we the idea of matter was conceived of, atoms were the smallest things known. And most matter anyone will have every-day contact with will be matter composed only of atoms.

And this is generally how we teach things. We teach the simple and general first, then refine with special cases.

Lego blocks are the building blocks of Lego sets but they are also made up of smaller things (plastics, dyes, etc). If you had all those things separately you wouldn’t necessarily be able to make the lego set, but using the blocks you can easily. Same with atoms, even if you had a bunch of protons, neutrons, or electrons it would be extremely difficult to make water, but if you had hydrogen and oxygen you could easily.

Because these are the Legos we understand best. We have studied long and know most of the rules. We don’t like to rely on uncertainty albeit the principle therein. Also we can build with them.

Atoms are the legos of matter.

Legos are building blocks. Sure if you break it down further they were first plastic, but the plastic doesn’t behave like lego-matter until you make it into bricks.

Atoms are the smallest building blocks of chemistry. You can always split things down by chemical reactions further and further and further until you have the elemental (atomic) forms (albeit briefly in some cases if they can stick to themselves). You can predict how those elements will behave in a straightforwardish way with nothing more complex than a periodic table.

Yes, if you go to physics, you can get smaller (protons, neutrons and electrons) and then smaller still (quarks and the rest of the menagerie) and potentially smaller still (strings? brane Intersections? Who knows) but those things don’t affect human scale chemical reactions so can be discarded at an introductory level. At uni level, chemistry uses quantum physics (of course) but the calculations are… unpleasant.

A brick is the building block of a house. A brick is composed of clay, sand, aggregate etc. etc.