Electrical Fields and Their Effects

Electrical Basics

Electrical Fields and Their Effects:

Electrical Basics


The fact that charges exert forces on one another over a distance is explained by the idea of an electric field. An electric field is often referred to as an E-field, because of the symbol used to represent it: \(\mathord{\buildrel{\lower3pt\hbox{$\scriptscriptstyle\rightharpoonup$}} \over E} \). The little arrow over the “E” indicates that the electric field is a vector field—it has both a magnitude and a direction.

Important Points

  • Vector fields differ from scalar fields in that scalar fields have a magnitude, but no direction. In fluid systems, for example, pressure is a scalar field. Pressure at a point pushes equally hard in all directions. Flow rate in a fluid, on the other hand, is a vector field— if the fluid is flowing, it has both magnitude (how fast it's going) and a direction (north, south, away from a pump, toward a pump).
  • Another example of a vector field is the force applied when you push your car. It has a magnitude—how hard you push, and a direction—out of traffic.

For example, a point charge (a theoretical charge which has zero size1) creates an electric field which radiates outward from the charge in all directions. The magnitude of the electric field decreases with distance—the electric field gets weaker the farther you get away from it. Therefore, the electric field of a point charge has a direction which points straight out from the charge, and its magnitude decreases with the distance from the charge2. The magnitude of the field is also dependent upon the strength of the charge—larger charges create stronger electric fields. The electric field induced by a point charge is illustrated in Fig. 1.

Figure 1. Electric field of a point charge.

Mathematically, the electric field of a point charge is given, at least approximately, by3:


\[\mathord{\buildrel{\lower3pt\hbox{$\scriptscriptstyle\rightharpoonup$}} \over E} \infty \hat R\frac{q}{{{R^2}}}\]

Where the symbol “\(\infty \)” means “is proportional to” , “\(\hat R \)” provides the direction of the field (straight out from the charge), “q” is the amount of charge, and “ R” is the distance from the charge. Notice that this equation gives a handy summary of the previous discussion:

  • The electric field's direction is away from the charge.
  • Its magnitude is proportional to the amount of charge.
  • It decreases with the square of the distance from the charge.

Analogy: Gravitational Fields

We are probably a little more familiar with gravitational fields than electric fields, so let's spend some time looking at electric fields in the context of gravity.

According to Newton's law, any two masses will have an attractive force between them, which tends to pull them toward one another. The attractive force is proportional to the product of the masses, and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. This force can be explained by hypothesizing a gravitational field which is produced by a mass. Like an electric field, a gravitational field has a magnitude and direction. The direction of the field is inward toward the mass, and its magnitude is proportional to the mass and inversely proportional to the square of the distance from the mass. Figure 2 illustrates at least the direction of the field, if nothing else.

Figure 2. The gravitational field around a mass.

Mathematically, the gravitational field, \(\mathord{\buildrel{\lower3pt\hbox{$\scriptscriptstyle\rightharpoonup$}} \over \psi } \), is given by:


\[\mathord{\buildrel{\lower3pt\hbox{$\scriptscriptstyle\rightharpoonup$}} \over \psi } {\rm{ }}\infty - \hat R\frac{m}{{{R^2}}}\]


\[\mathord{\buildrel{\lower3pt\hbox{$\scriptscriptstyle\rightharpoonup$}} \over F} {\rm{ = }}{m_2}\mathord{\buildrel{\lower3pt\hbox{$\scriptscriptstyle\rightharpoonup$}} \over \psi } {\rm{ }}\infty - \hat R\frac{{m \cdot {m_2}}}{{{R^2}}}\]

The similarity between equations (2) and (3) should be obvious. Mass takes the place of charge, and the sign on the field changes (a positive mass has a gravitational field that points toward it, while a positive charge has an electric field that points away from it).

The presence of the gravitational field helps us explain the attractive force between masses. If we place a second body in the gravitational field of the mass, \(m\), of Fig. 2 and equation (2); Newton's law tells us that the force attracting the two bodies will be the gravitational field of the first body times the mass of the second body. This means that the force on the second body, which we will claim has mass \({m_2}\), is shown in equation (3).

This matches the previous description we gave of Newton's law:

  • The force is proportional to the product of the masses.
  • It is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.
  • It is toward the original mass, m. (Remember that -\(\hat R\) is pointing toward the mass m, per equation (2)).

If we place a second mass in the region of the first mass, there will be a force which pulls the two masses together. A similar phenomenon results from the electric field around a charge, which we will discuss next.

Electromagnetic Force in Terms of E-Fields

Now let's develop the concept of the attractive or repulsive force between two charges more rigorously. Figure 3 provides a visual representation of what we are talking about; we have two charges, q1 and q2, and we want to determine the attractive or repulsive force between them.

Figure 3. Forces on two charges.

According to equation (1), the charge q1 creates an electric field:


\[\mathord{\buildrel{\lower3pt\hbox{$\scriptscriptstyle\rightharpoonup$}} \over E } {\rm{ }}\infty {\rm{ }}\hat R\frac{{{q_1}}}{{{q_2}}}\]


\[\mathord{\buildrel{\lower3pt\hbox{$\scriptscriptstyle\rightharpoonup$}} \over F} {\rm{ }}\infty {\rm{ }}\hat R\frac{{{q_{1{\rm{ }}}}{q_2}}}{{{R_2}}}\]

If we place charge q2 in this field, then the force between them will be q2 times this electric field (analogously to Newton's law presented above). This is shown mathematically in equation (5).

Equation (5) is (almost) Coulomb's law4. It tells us that the magnitude of the force between two charges is proportional to the product of the charges and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. Equation (5) also gives the direction of the force. If the charges q 1 and q2 have the same sign (if they are both positive or both negative), equation (5) says that the force on q2 will be pointing away from q1, and q2 will be repelled by q1. (Recall that \(\hat R\) is pointing away from q1, per equation (1) and Fig. 1.) Contrariwise, if q1 and q2 have opposite signs, their product will be negative, and the sign on the force changes, so that the force on q2 is now toward q1 and the charges are attracted to one another (-\(\hat R\) points toward q1, analogously to equation (2) and Fig. 2).

Important Points

  • Postulating that charges create electric fields allows us to explain the observation that charges apply forces to one another, across a distance. It also explains the fact that charges of the same sign repel one another and charges of opposite signs attract one another.
  • The electric field around a charge is somewhat analogous to a gravitational field around a mass. Probably the main difference is that masses only attract one another; this difference is due to the fact that we only have positive masses, while both positive and negative charges exist in nature.

  • 1Unlike electrons, which are huge in comparison to a point charge.
  • 2To be exact, it decreases according to the square of the distance from the charge. So it drops off pretty quickly if you get very far away from the charge.
  • 3No, you don't need to remember this to follow any of the material on this website. A vague understanding of the previous description is useful, though. The math just provides an easy way to summarize the description. That's what math is for!
  • 4The full version of Coulomb's law contains physical constants and an equal sign, rather than the proportional sign we've used. The general idea I want to get across is preserved in equation (5).

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