Sign up ×
Physics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for active researchers, academics and students of physics. It's 100% free.

The Oxford English Dictionary definition of particle is as follows:

"A component of the physical world smaller than the atom."

I read an article in NewScientist and it said

"...all particles from the atom to the electron..."

Now I'm assuming that since NewScientist is one of the leading science magazines, albeit slightly more of a simple read than others, it wouldn't make a mistake this obvious, so therefore am assuming that an atom is referred to as a particle in physics but I'm slightly sceptical. So:

  1. Is an atom a particle?
  2. If so, why? It doesn't fit the definition of a particle and I am sure that I have been told on multiple cases that a particle is the smallest form of composite matter.

And after all, how can a particle be made up of particles?

This brings me to a third question, so long as the answer to question 1 is "no":

  1. Does that mean that the proton and neutron aren't 'particles', but called something else? (only answer this question if question 1 has an answer of "no").
share|cite|improve this question
Particle is a rather vague term. You give too much credence to the rigor of an English dictionary's "definition". – Siyuan Ren Sep 6 '12 at 17:02
In different contexts, particles can mean vatious things. For large enough particles, consider e.g. dust particles that are way larger than an atom. "Dust particles" is a standard term. Electron, proton, and neutron used to be called "elementary particles". Today, we would reserve the term for electrons and quarks: the meaning is evolving, too. After all, the term "atom" means "indivisible" which it's surely not, either. Wikipedia wisely defines particles as any localized object with physical properties (especially if well approximated by point masses). – Luboš Motl Sep 6 '12 at 17:06
@LubošMotl lol, looks like we had a similar train of thought :) – kηives Sep 6 '12 at 17:08
No, it's a matter of context, as the answers try to explain. (@Luboš I think your comment would make a very nice answer) – David Z Sep 6 '12 at 17:24
Human language is a very plastic thing. Words mean different things in different places and when used under different conditions. – dmckee Sep 6 '12 at 18:29

2 Answers 2

up vote 3 down vote accepted

In practice, I would say a particle is anything that can be treated as a single, bound, small object. This means that whether an object is considered a particle depends on how you're working with it.

For example, an atomic nucleus is a particle if you're doing spectroscopy, because the structure of the nucleus is irrelevant to the changes in energy levels of the electrons and so you can basically consider it a charged point. But that same nucleus would not be considered a particle in an ion-ion collider, because the structure of the nucleus is highly relevant there.

More generally: quarks, gluons, protons, neutrons, atoms, molecules, cells, grains of dust, raindrops, baseballs, satellites, planets, stars, and even galaxies can all be considered particles in an appropriate context.

It doesn't fit the definition of a particle

This is an example of why you should never trust a general-purpose dictionary to give the appropriate definition for a term used in a technical field like physics.

I have been told on multiple cases that a particle is the smallest form of composite matter.

That's not necessarily true; as I've said, it's context-dependent. However, that is the definition implied in the term "particle physics" (which is really meant to mean something like "fundamental particle physics").

share|cite|improve this answer

It seems you are trying to say that the word particle only has one possible meaning. And if you decide for yourself that that is true, then you have to stick with it. But in general, a "particle" can have various meanings. I can say I have a "particle of dust", which is certainly a particle. I can also refer to a "fundamental particle" like an electron, which, as of now we believe is not a "composite particle", meaning it is not made up of constituents. Consider the nucleons, or other hadrons, these "particles" are made up of more fundamental particles called quarks, which we believe are actually elementary. So, sure an atom is a particle, but it's a composite object, however it's composite nature only reveals itself in particular instances. I guess maybe don't try and force the word "particle" into only one strict definition.

share|cite|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.