After the accident, public opposition to nuclear power in Japan ran high, and the government ordered the immediate shutdown and reinspection of its 48 nuclear reactors. At the time of the earthquake, these reactors supplied 30% of the nation’s electricity. Remediation efforts at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant are expected to take decades and cost around $17 billion, and fears of radiation poisoning in the region will linger for generations.


Given its global implications for the future of energy production, the events of March 11, 2011, will be keenly recalled in all corners of our world. The tragic events in northeastern Japan were the result of largescale forces generated by the powerful geologic processes that shape the surface of our planet. Environmental scientists regularly study these types of processes to understand how our planet works. Because all large-scale processes are made up of small-scale components, however, environmental science— the broadest of scientific fields—must also study small-scale phenomena. At the smallest scale, an understanding of matter itself helps us to fully appreciate all the processes of our world.


All material in the universe that has mass and occupies space—solid, liquid, and gas alike—is called matter. In our quick tour of matter in the pages that follow, we examine types of matter and some of the important ways they interact— phenomena that together we term chemistry. Once you examine any environmental issue, from acid rain to toxic chemicals to climate change, you will likely discover chemistry playing a central role.