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Physics LibreTexts

5: Electric Charges and Fields

  • Page ID
    4378
  • [ "article:topic-guide", "authorname:openstax", "license:ccby" ]

    In this chapter, we begin the study of the electric force, which acts on all objects with a property called charge. The electric force is much stronger than gravity (in most systems where both appear), but it can be a force of attraction or a force of repulsion, which leads to very different effects on objects. The electric force helps keep atoms together, so it is of fundamental importance in matter. But it also governs most everyday interactions we deal with, from chemical interactions to biological processes.

    • 5.0: Prelude to Electric Charges and Fields
      Back when we were studying Newton’s laws, we identified several physical phenomena as forces. We did so based on the effect they had on a physical object: Specifically, they caused the object to accelerate. Later, when we studied impulse and momentum, we expanded this idea to identify a force as any physical phenomenon that changed the momentum of an object. In either case, the result is the same: We recognize a force by the effect that it has on an object.
    • 5.1: Electric Charge
      You are certainly familiar with electronic devices that you activate with the click of a switch, from computers to cell phones to television. And you have certainly seen electricity in a flash of lightning during a heavy thunderstorm. But you have also most likely experienced electrical effects in other ways, maybe without realizing that an electric force was involved. Let’s take a look at some of these activities and see what we can learn from them about electric charges and forces.
    • 5.2: Conductors, Insulators, and Charging by Induction
      In the preceding section, we said that scientists were able to create electric charge only on nonmetallic materials and never on metals. To understand why this is the case, you have to understand more about the nature and structure of atoms. In this section, we discuss how and why electric charges do—or do not—move through materials. A more complete description is given in a later chapter.
    • 5.3: Coulomb's Law
      Experiments with electric charges have shown that if two objects each have electric charge, then they exert an electric force on each other. The magnitude of the force is linearly proportional to the net charge on each object and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. (Interestingly, the force does not depend on the mass of the objects.) The direction of the force vector is along the imaginary line joining the two objects and is dictated by the signs of the charges.
    • 5.4: Electric Field
      The electric field, which is independent of the test charge. It only depends on the configuration of the source charges, and once found, allows us to calculate the force on any test charge.
    • 5.5: Calculating Electric Fields of Charge Distributions
      The charge distributions we have seen so far have been discrete: made up of individual point particles. This is in contrast with a continuous charge distribution, which has at least one nonzero dimension. If a charge distribution is continuous rather than discrete, we can generalize the definition of the electric field. We simply divide the charge into infinitesimal pieces and treat each piece as a point charge.
    • 5.6: Electric Field Lines
      Our model is that the charge on an object (the source charge) alters space in the region around it in such a way that when another charged object (the test charge) is placed in that region of space, that test charge experiences an electric force. The concept of electric field lines, and of electric field line diagrams, enables us to visualize the way in which the space is altered, allowing us to visualize the field.
    • 5.7: Electric Dipoles
      Earlier we discussed, and calculated, the electric field of a dipole: two equal and opposite charges that are “close” to each other. (In this context, “close” means that the distance d between the two charges is much, much less than the distance of the field point P, the location where you are calculating the field.) Let’s now consider what happens to a dipole when it is placed in an external field.
    • 5.A: Electric Charges and Fields (Answer)
    • 5.E: Electric Charges and Fields (Exercises)
    • 5.S: Electric Charges and Fields (Summary)

    Thumbnail: The eight source charges each apply a force on the single test charge Q. Each force can be calculated independently of the other seven forces. This is the essence of the superposition principle.