What is a State of Matter?

This Vice article excitedly talking about the discovery of a new state of matter has been making the rounds a lot lately. (Or maybe it’s because I just started following Motherboard on Twitter after a friend pointed this article out) Which lead to two good questions: What is a state of matter? And how do we know we’ve found a new one? We’ll consider that second one another time.

In elementary school, we all learned that solid, liquid, and gas were different states of matter (and maybe if you’re science class was ahead of the curve, you talked about plasma). And recent scientific research has focused a lot on two other states of matter: the exotic Bose-Einstein condensate, which is looked at for many experiments to slow down light, and the quark-gluon plasma, which closely resembles the first few milliseconds of the universe after the Big Bang. What makes all of these different things states? Essentially a state of matter is the set behavior of the collection of particles that makes up your object of interest, and each state behaves so differently you can’t apply the description one to another. A crucial point here is that we can only consider multiple partcies to be states, and typically a large number of particles. If you somehow have only one molecule of water, it doesn’t really work to say whether it is solid, liquid, or gas because there’s no other water for it to interact with to develop collective properties.

So room temperature gold and ice are solids because they’re described by regular crystal lattices that repeat. Molten gold and water are no longer solids because they’re no longer described by a regular crystal structure but still have relatively strong forces between molecules. The key property of a Bose-Einstein condensate is that most of its constituent particles are in the lowest possible energy. You can tell when you switched states (a phase transition) because there was a discontinuous change in energy or a property related to energy. In everyday life, this shows up as the latent heat of melting and the latent heat of vaporization (or evaporation).

The latent heat of melting is what makes ice so good at keeping drinks cold. It’s not just the fact that ice is colder than the liquid; the discontinuous “jump” of energy required to actually melt 32°F  ice into 32°F water also absorbs a lot of heat. You can see this jump in the heating curve below. You also see this when you boil water. Just heating water to 212 degrees Fahrenheit doesn’t cause it all to boil away; your kettle/stove also has to provide enough heat to overcome the heat of vaporization. And that heating is discontinuous because it doesn’t raise the temperature until the phase transition is complete. You can try this for yourself in the kitchen with a candy thermometer: ice will always measure 32 F, even if  you threw it in the oven, and boiling water will always measure 212 F.

A graph with the horizontal axis labelled "Q (heat added}" and the veritcal axis labelled "temperature (in Celsius)". It shows three sloped segments, that are labelled, going from the left, ice, heating of water, and heating of water vapor. The sloped line for "ice" and "heating of water" are connected by a flat line representing heat used to melt ice to water. The "heating of water" and "heating of water vapor" sloped lines are connected by a flat line labelled "heat used to vaporize water to water vapor".

The heating curve of water. The horizontal axis represents how much heat has been added to a sample of water. The vertical axis shows the temperature. The flat lines are where heat is going into the latent heat of the phase transition instead of raising the temperature of the sample.

There’s also something neat about another common material related to phase transitions. The transition between a liquid and a glass state does not have a latent heat. This is the one thing that makes me really sympathetic to the “glasses are just supercooled liquids” views. Interestingly, this also means that there’s really no such thing as a single melting temperature for a given glass, because the heating/cooling rate becomes very important.

But then the latter bit of the article confused me, because to me it points out that “state of matter” seems kind of arbitrary compared to “phase”, which we talk about all the time in materials science (and as you can see, we say both go through “phase” transitions). A phase is some object with consistent properties throughout it, and a material with the same composition can be in different phases but still in the same state. For instance, there actually is a phase of ice called ice IX, and the arrangement of the water molecules in it is different from that in conventional ice, but we would definitely still consider both to be solids. Switching between these phases, even though they’re in the same state, also requires some kind of energy change.

Or if you heat a permanent magnet above its critical temperature and caused it to lose its magnetization, that’s the second kind of phase transition. That is, while the heat and magnetization may have changed continuously, the ease of magnetizing it (which is the second derivative of the energy with respect to strength of the magnetic field) had a jump at that point. Your material is still in a solid state and the atoms are still in the same positions, but it changed its magnetic state from permanent to paramagnetic. So part of me is wondering whether we can consider that underlying electron behavior to be a definition of a state of matter or a phase. The article makes it sound we’re fine saying they’re basically the same thing. This Wikipedia description of “fermionic condensates” as a means to describe superconductivity also supports this idea.

Going by this description then means we’re surrounded by way more states of matter than the usual four we consider. With solids alone, you interact with magnetic metals, conductors (metals or the semiconductors in your electronics), insulating solids, insulating glasses, and magnetic glasses (amorphous metals are used in most of those theft-prevention tags you see) on a regular basis, which all have different electron behaviors. It might seem slightly unsatisfying for something that sounds as fundamental as “states of matter” to end up having so many different categories, but it just reflects an increasing understanding of the natural world.