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Milk is a typical liquid. A liquid takes on the shape of the container it is in; in this case a glass. Liquids have a distinct boundary called a "free surface"; in this case, near the top of the glass where the milk meets the air above it.
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Image courtesy of Corel Corporation.


Liquid is one of the four common states of matter. The three others are gas, solid, and plasma. There are also some other exotic states of matter that have been discovered in recent years.

A liquid does not have a fixed shape, like a solid; instead it takes on the shape of the container that it is in. Liquids can flow. A liquid has a distinct surface, unlike a gas. This surface is called a free surface. For example, water in a glass has a surface where the water ends and the air above it begins.

When a liquid boils or evaporates, it becomes a gas. When a liquid freezes, it becomes a solid. For example, when liquid water boils, it becomes water vapor. When liquid water freezes, it becomes ice.

In everyday life we think of a liquid and a fluid as being the same thing. Scientists use the term "fluid" in a special way, though, to mean things that can flow. Liquids, gases, and plasmas are all fluids as far as scientists are concerned.

Water is probably what you think of when someone mentions a liquid. Milk, gasoline, and cooking oil are other common liquids. Some common substances, like the oxygen and nitrogen in air, are gases under "normal" circumstances but can become liquids if they are very, very cold. Mercury is a kind of metal that is a liquid at normal temperatures; it doesn't "freeze" and become a solid until cooled to -39 C (-38 F). Glass and steel become liquids when they are heated to very, very high temperatures.

Last modified June 25, 2008 by Randy Russell.

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA