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An Introduction To Electrostatics

The electromagnetic force between charged particles is one of the fundamental forces of nature. We begin this chapter by describing some of the basic properties of electric forces. We then discuss Coulomb’s law, which is the fundamental law governing the force between any two charged particles. Next, we introduce the concept of an electric field associated with a charge distribution and describe its effect on other charged particles. We then show how to use Coulomb’s law to calculate the electric field for a given charge distribution. We conclude the chapter with a discussion of the motion of a charged particle in a uniform electric field.

A number of simple experiments demonstrate the existence of electric forces and charges. For example, after running a comb through your hair on a dry day, you will find that the comb attracts bits of paper. The attractive force is often strong enough to suspend the paper. The same effect occurs when materials such as glass
or rubber are rubbed with silk or fur.

Another simple experiment is to rub an inflated balloon with wool. The balloon then adheres to a wall, often for hours. When materials behave in this way, they are said to be electrified, or to have become electrically charged. You can easily electrify your body by vigorously rubbing your shoes on a wool rug. The electric charge on your body can be felt and removed by lightly touching (and startling) a friend. Under the right conditions, you will see a spark when you touch, and both of you will feel a slight tingle. (Experiments such as these work best on a dry day because an excessive amount of moisture in the air can cause any charge you build up to “leak” from your body to the Earth.)

In a series of simple experiments, it is found that there are two kinds of electric charges, which were given the names positive and negative by Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790). To verify that this is true, consider a hard rubber rod that has been rubbed with fur and then suspended by a nonmetallic thread. When a glass rod that has been rubbed with silk is brought near the rubber rod, the two attract each other. On the other hand, if two charged rubber rods (or two charged glass rods) are brought near each other, the two repel each other. This observation shows that the rubber and glass are in two different states of electrification. On the basis of these observations, we conclude that like charges repel one another and unlike
charges attract one another.

Using the convention suggested by Franklin, the electric charge on the glass rod is called positive and that on the rubber rod is called negative. Therefore, any charged object attracted to a charged rubber rod (or repelled by a charged glass rod) must have a positive charge, and any charged object repelled by a charged rubber rod (or attracted to a charged glass rod) must have a negative charge.

Attractive electric forces are responsible for the behavior of a wide variety of commercial products. For example, the plastic in many contact lenses, etafilcon, is made up of molecules that electrically attract the protein molecules in human tears. These protein molecules are absorbed and held by the plastic so that the lens ends up being primarily composed of the wearer’s tears. Because of this, the wearer’s eye does not treat the lens as a foreign object, and it can be worn comfortably. Many cosmetics also take advantage of electric forces by incorporating materials that are electrically attracted to skin or hair, causing the pigments or other chemicals to stay put once they are applied.


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