Why are atoms considered the smallest unit of matter when it's constituents are much smaller?

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Answered by: Vijay Harisudan , An Expert in the Atoms and Particles Category
Before we explore the question, let us quickly understand what is matter, with reference to the question. Matter is anything comprised of the 118 chemical elements known to mankind AND occupies space and has mass. A common misconception is to provide only the latter part of the preceding statement as the definition for matter.

Now that we know what matter is, let us see how we define a chemical element. An atom, with a specific fixed number of protons, neutron and electrons, in the ground or unexcited state, is known as a particular chemical element. For instance, if an atom has exactly 1 proton, 0 neutrons and 1 electron, it is known as Hydrogen. Or if it possesses exactly 2 protons, 2 neutrons and 2 electrons, it is known as Helium.

We know that an atom can be further split into electrons, protons and neutrons. Some of us might have know that these sub-particles are further divisible into quarks, gluons, leptons, mesons, bosons, etc. However, those smaller divisions are not worth troubling over to answer our question. A single electron or proton does not make up or correspond to one of the one hundred and eighteen chemical elements. Moreover, in the ground state, a singular sub-particle as those listed above, cannot exist on their own. They have to co-exist with the other sub-particles in order to form the most physically and chemically stable structure known as the atom.

For that fact, in the ground state or unexcited state, an atom of any chemical element cannot exist stably if any one of it's constituent protons, electrons or neutrons are removed.

Apart from intricate atomic physics, any chemical element cannot be broken down to a size smaller than that of it's corresponding atom without losing it's nature. For instance, consider an Iron block. One can carry on 'cutting, metaphorically, the block only until the size of an atom. If at all one were to split it further, we can no longer refer to it as Iron.

These are the two major reasons, as to why an atom is considered to be the smallest unit of matter in the universe.

Most of us have generally learnt 3 to 5 fundamental states of matter, throughout the course of our education. They are, namely, Solid State, Liquid State, Gaseous State, Plasma and Bose-Einstein condensate. However, in under super critical laboratory conditions, scientists have managed to identify over thirty different states of matter such as degenerate matter, photonic matter and etc,.

In all of these states, a chemical element retains its identity as an atom with it's own specific signature of protons, neutrons and electrons. Although the universe hold so many mysteries that man cannot possibly hope to comprehend in it's entirety, to mankind's best knowledge, an atom is the smallest unit of matter. It is scientifically known as the fundamental building block of matter and any worldwide acceptance of a counter theory, will be nothing short of a Nobel Prize.

Hence, that is precisely what you need to know to answer the question: Why are atoms considered the smallest units of matter?

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