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16.1: Introduction

We are accustomed to using MKS (metre-kilogram-second) units. A second, at one time defined as a fraction 1/86400 of a day, is now defined as 9 192 631 770 times the period of a hyperfine line emitted in the spectrum of the 133Cs (cesium) atom. A metre was at one time defined as one ten-millionth of the length of a quadrant of Earth's surface measured from pole to equator. Later it was defined as the distance between two scratches on a platinum-iridium bar held on Paris. Still later, it was defined in terms of the wavelength of one or other of several spectral lines that have been used in the past for this purpose. At present, the metre is defined as the distance travelled by light in vacuo in a time of 1/(299 792 458) second. A kilogram is equal to the mass of a platinum-iridium cylinder held in Paris. The day may come when we are able to define a kilogram as the mass of so many electrons, but that day is not yet.

For electricity and magnetism, we extended the MKS system by adding an additional unit, the ampère, whose definition was given in Section 6.2, to form the MKSA system. This in turn is a subset of SI (le Système International des Unités), which also includes the kelvin, the candela and the mole.

An older system of units, still used by some authors, was the CGS (centimetre-gram-second) system. In this system, a dyne is the force that will impart an acceleration of 1 cm s-2 to a mass of 1 gram. An erg is the work done when a force of one dyne moves its point of application through 1 cm in the line of action of the force. It will not take the reader a moment to see that a newton is equal to 105 dynes, and a joule is 107 ergs. As far as mechanical units are concerned, neither one system has any particular advantage over the other.

When it comes to electricity and magnetism, however, the situation is entirely different, and there is a huge difference between MKS and CGS. Part of the difficulty stems from the circumstance that electrostatics, magnetism and current electricity originally grew up as quite separate disciplines, each with its own system of units, and the connections between them were not appreciated or even discovered. It is not always realized that there are several version of CGS units used in electricity and magnetism, including hybrid systems, and countless conversion factors between one version and another. There are CGS electrostatic units (esu), to be used in electrostatics; CGS electromagnetic units (emu), to be used for describing magnetic quantities; and gaussian mixed units. In the gaussian mixed system, in equations that include both electrostatic quantities and magnetic quantities, the former were supposed to be expressed in esu and the latter in emu, and a conversion factor, given the symbol c, would appear in various parts of an equation to take account of the fact that some quantities were expressed in one system of units and others were expressed in another system. There was also the practical system of units, used in current electricity. In this, the ampère would be defined either in terms of the rate of electrolytic deposition of silver from a silver nitrate solution, or as exactly 0.1 CGS emu of current. The ohm would be defined in terms of the resistance of a column of mercury of defined dimensions, or again as exactly 109 emu of resistance. And a volt was 108 emu of potential difference. It will be seen already that, for every electrical quantity, several conversion factors between the different systems had to be known. Indeed, the MKSA system was devised specifically to avoid this proliferation of conversion factors.

Generally, the units in these CGS system have no particular names; one just talks about so many esu of charge, or so many emu of current. Some authors, however, give the names statcoulomb, statamp, statvolt, statohm ,etc., for the CGS esu of charge, current, potential difference and resistance, and abcoulomb, abamp, abvolt, abohm for the corresponding emu.

The difficulties by no means end there. For example, Coulomb's law is generally written as


It will immediately be evident from this that the permittivity defined by this equation differs by a factor of \(4\pi\) from the permittivity that we are accustomed to. In the familiar equation generally used in conjunction with SI units, namely

\[F=\dfrac{Q_1Q_2}{4 \pi \epsilon r^2}\]

the permittivity \(\epsilon\) so defined is called the rationalized permittivity. The permittivity \(k\) of equation 16.1.1 is the unrationalized permittivity. The two are related by \(k=4\pi \epsilon\).  A difficulty with the unrationalized form is that a factor \(4\pi\) appears in formulas describing uniform fields, and is absent from formulas describing situations with spherical symmetry.

Yet a further difficulty is that the magnitude of the CGS esu of charge is defined in such a way that the unrationalized free space permittivity has the numerical value 1 – and consequently it is normally left out of any equations in which it should appear. Thus equations as written often do not balance dimensionally, and one is deprived of dimensional analysis as a tool. Permittivity is regarded as a dimensionless number, and Coulomb's law for two charges in vacuo is written as


The view is taken that electrical quantities can be expressed dimensionally in terms of mass, length and time only, and, from equation 16.1.3, it is asserted that the dimensions of electrical charge are


Because permittivity is regarded as a dimensionless quantity, the vectors \(\textbf{E}\) and \(\textbf{D}\) are regarded as dimensionally similar, and in vacuo they are identical. That is, in vacuo, there is no distinction between them.

When we come to CGS electromagnetic units all these difficulties reappear, except that, in the emu system, the free space permeability is regarded as a dimensionless number equal to 1, \(\textbf{B}\) and \(\textbf{H}\) are dimensionally similar, and in vacuo there is no distinction between them. The dimensions of electric charge in the CGS emu system are


Thus the dimensions of charge are different in esu and in emu.

Two more highlights. The unit of capacitance in the CGS esu system is the centimeter, but in the CGS emu system, the centimeter is the unit of inductance.

Few users of CGS esu and emu fully understand the complexity of the system. Those who do so have long abandoned it for SI. CGS units are probably largely maintained by those who work with CGS units in a relatively narrow field and who therefore do not often have occasion to convert from one unit to another in this immensely complicated and physically unrealistic system.

Please don't blame me for this – I'm just the messenger!

In Sections 16.2, 16.3 and 16.4, I shall describe some of the features of the esu, emu and mixed systems. I shall not be giving a full and detailed exposition of CGS electricity, but I am just mentioning some of the highlights and difficulties. You are not going to like these sections very much, and will probably not make much sense of them. I suggest just skip through them quickly the first time, just to get some idea of what it's all about. The practical difficulty that you are likely to come across in real life is that you will come across equations and units written in CGS language, and you will want to know how to translate them into the SI language with which you are familiar. I hope to address that in Section 16.5, and to give you some way of translating a CGS formula into an SI formula that you can use and get the right answer from.