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....

Electric Field of a Continuous Charge Distribution

Charge really comes in discrete chunks, but often it is mathematically convenient to treat a set of charges as if they were like a continuous fluid spread throughout a region of space. For example, a charged metal ball will have charge spread nearly uniformly all over its surface, and in for most purposes it will make sense to ignore the fact that this uniformity is broken at the atomic level. The electric field made by such a continuous charge distribution is the sum of the fields created by every part of it. If we let the "parts" become infinitesimally small, we have a sum of an infinite number of infinitesimal numbers, which is an integral. If it was a discrete sum, we would have a total electric field in the x direction that was the sum of all the x components of the individual fields, and similarly we'd have sums for the y and z components. In the continuous case, we have three integrals.

Field of a uniformly charged rod

Last Update: 2009-06-21