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Electricity and Magnetism Guide

Updated: Mar 10, 2022

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.

Charge, Electricity and Magnetism

For example, although we speak colloquially of “charging” 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, attracting 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

Guide to electricity and magnetism for electrical engineers (photo credit: Paul Nylander)

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 the amount of charge such that a force of 9.0×109 N occurs between two point like 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 point-like, 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 charging 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 end 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 flavours, 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 possess 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


Electricity and Magnetism by Benjamin Crowell




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