Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....

Charge, Electricity and Magnetism


"Charge" is the technical term used to indicate that an object has been prepared so as to participate in electrical forces. This is to be distinguished from the common usage, in which the term is used indiscriminately for anything electrical. For example, although we speak colloquially of "charg-ing" a battery, you may easily verify that a battery has no charge in the technical sense, e.g. it does not exert any electrical force on a piece of tape that has been prepared as described in the previous section.

Two types of charge

We can easily collect reams of data on electrical forces between different substances that have been charged in different ways. We find for example that cat fur prepared by rubbing against rabbit fur will attract glass that has been rubbed on silk. How can we make any sense of all this information? A vast simplification is achieved by noting that there are really only two types of charge. Suppose we pick cat fur rubbed on rabbit fur as a representative of type A, and glass rubbed on silk for type B. We will now find that there is no "type C." Any object electrified by any method is either A-like, attract-ing things A attracts and repelling those it repels, or B-like, displaying the same attractions and repulsions as B. The two types, A and B, always display opposite interactions. If A displays an attraction with some charged object, then B is guaranteed to undergo repulsion with it, and vice-versa.

The coulomb

Although there are only two types of charge, each type can come in different amounts. The metric unit of charge is the coulomb (rhymes with "drool on"), defined as follows:

One Coulomb (C) is defined as the amount of charge such that a force of 9.0x109 N occurs between two pointlike objects with charges of 1 C separated by a distance of 1 m.

The notation for an amount of charge is q. The numerical factor in the definition is historical in origin, and is not worth memorizing. The definition is stated for pointlike, i.e. very small, objects, because otherwise different parts of them would be at different distances from each other.

A model of two types of charged particles

Experiments show that all the methods of rubbing or otherwise charg-ing objects involve two objects, and both of them end up getting charged. If one object acquires a certain amount of one type of charge, then the other ends up with an equal amount of the other type. Various interpretations of this are possible, but the simplest is that the basic building blocks of matter come in two flavors, one with each type of charge. Rubbing objects together results in the transfer of some of these particles from one object to the other. In this model, an object that has not been electrically prepared may actually possesses a great deal of both types of charge, but the amounts are equal and they are distributed in the same way throughout it. Since type A repels anything that type B attracts, and vice versa, the object will make a total force of zero on any other object. The rest of this chapter fleshes out this model and discusses how these mysterious particles can be understood as being internal parts of atoms.

Use of positive and negative signs for charge

Because the two types of charge tend to cancel out each other's forces, it makes sense to label them using positive and negative signs, and to discuss the total charge of an object. It is entirely arbitrary which type of charge to call negative and which to call positive. Benjamin Franklin decided to describe the one we've been calling "A" as negative, but it really doesn't matter as long as everyone is consistent with everyone else. An object with a total charge of zero (equal amounts of both types) is referred to as electri-cally neutral.

Self-Check Criticize the following statement: "There are two types of charge, attractive and repulsive."
Answer Either type can be involved in either an attraction or a repulsion. A positive charge could be involved in either an attraction (with a negative charge) or a repulsion (with another positive), and a negative could participate in either an attraction (with a positive) or a repulsion (with a negative).

Coulomb's law

A large body of experimental observations can be summarized as follows:

Coulomb's law

The magnitude of the force acting between pointlike charged objects at a center-to-center distance r is given by the equation

where the constant k equals 9.0x109 N.m2/C2. The force is attractive if the charges are of different signs, and repulsive if they have the same sign.

Clever modern techniques have allowed the 1/r2 form of Coulomb's law to be tested to incredible accuracy, showing that the exponent is in the range from 1.9999999999999998 to 2.0000000000000002.

Note that Coulomb's law is closely analogous to Newton's law of gravity, where the magnitude of the force is Gm1 m2/ r2 , except that there is only one type of mass, not two, and gravitational forces are never repulsive. Because of this close analogy between the two types of forces, we can recycle a great deal of our knowledge of gravitational forces. For instance, there is an electrical equivalent of the shell theorem: the electrical forces exerted externally by a uniformly charged spherical shell are the same as if all the charge was concentrated at its center, and the forces exerted internally are zero.

Conservation of charge

An even more fundamental reason for using positive and negative signs for electrical charge is that experiments show that charge is con- served according to this definition: in any closed system, the total amount of charge is a constant. This is why we observe that rubbing initially uncharged substances together always has the result that one gains a certain amount of one type of charge, while the other acquires an equal amount of the other type. Conservation of charge seems natural in our model in which matter is made of positive and negative particles. If the charge on each particle is a fixed property of that type of particle, and if the particles themselves can be neither created nor destroyed, then conservation of charge is inevitable.

Electrical forces involving neutral objects

(a) A charged piece of tape attracts uncharged pieces of paper from a dis-tance, and they leap up to it.

(b) The paper has zero total charge, but it does have charged particles in it that can move.

As shown in figure (a), an electrically charged object can attract objects that are uncharged. How is this possible? The key is that even though each piece of paper has a total charge of zero, it has at least some charged particles in it that have some freedom to move. Suppose that the tape is positively charged, (b). Mobile particles in the paper will respond to the tape's forces, causing one end of the paper to become negatively charged and the other to become positive. The attraction is between the paper and the tape is now stronger than the repulsion, because the negatively charged end is closer to the tape.

Self-Check What would have happened if the tape was negatively charged?
Answer It wouldn't make any difference. The roles of the positive and negative charges in the paper would be reversed, but there would still be a net attraction.

The path ahead

We have begun to encounter complex electrical behavior that we would never have realized was occurring just from the evidence of our eyes. Unlike the pulleys, blocks, and inclined planes of mechanics, the actors on the stage of electricity and magnetism are invisible phenomena alien to our everyday experience. For this reason, the flavor of the second half of your physics education is dramatically different, focusing much more on experiments and techniques. Even though you will never actually see charge moving through a wire, you can learn to use an ammeter to measure the flow.

Students also tend to get the impression from their first semester of physics that it is a dead science. Not so! We are about to pick up the historical trail that leads directly to the cutting-edge physics research you read about in the newspaper. The atom-smashing experiments that began around 1900, which we will be studying in chapters 1 and 2, were not that different from the ones of the year 2000 - just smaller, simpler, and much cheaper.

Magnetic forces

A detailed mathematical treatment of magnetism won't come until much later in this book, but we need to develop a few simple ideas about magnetism now because magnetic forces are used in the experiments and techniques we come to next. Everyday magnets come in two general types. Permanent magnets, such as the ones on your refrigerator, are made of iron or substances like steel that contain iron atoms. (Certain other substances also work, but iron is the cheapest and most common.) The other type of magnet, an example of which is the ones that make your stereo speakers vibrate, consist of coils of wire through which electric charge flows. Both types of magnets are able to attract iron that has not been magnetically prepared, for instance the door of the refrigerator.

A single insight makes these apparently complex phenomena much simpler to understand: magnetic forces are interactions between moving charges, occurring in addition to the electric forces. Suppose a permanent magnet is brought near a magnet of the coiled-wire type. The coiled wire has moving charges in it because we force charge to flow. The permanent magnet also has moving charges in it, but in this case the charges that naturally swirl around inside the iron. (What makes a magnetized piece of iron different from a block of wood is that the motion of the charge in the wood is random rather than organized.) The moving charges in the coiled-wire magnet exert a force on the moving charges in the permanent magnet, and vice-versa.

The mathematics of magnetism is significantly more complex than the Coulomb force law for electricity, which is why we will wait until chapter 6 before delving deeply into it. Two simple facts will suffice for now:

(1) If a charged particle is moving in a region of space near where other charged particles are also moving, their magnetic force on it is directly proportional to its velocity.

(2) The magnetic force on a moving charged particle is always perpen-dicular to the direction the particle is moving.

A magnetic compass.

A television tube.

Discussion Questions

A If the electrical attraction between two pointlike objects at a distance of 1 m is 9x109 N, why can't we infer that their charges are +1 and -1 C? What further observations would we need to do in order to prove this?
B An electrically charged piece of tape will be attracted to your hand. Does that allow us to tell whether the mobile charged particles in your hand are positive or negative, or both?

Last Update: 2009-06-21