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What Is Electrostatics?

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  • Written By: Jason C. Chavis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 10 March 2014
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Electrostatics is the scientific discipline that involves the study of various phenomena caused by electric charges that are slow-moving or even stationary. Researchers study the electromagnetic interaction, the force that holds an electromagnetic field together, of subatomic particles such as electrons and protons. These particles produce electromagnetic fields by being electrically charged with either a positive or negative charge. As one of the four fundamental forces of physics, electromagnetic forces interact with particles in a variety of ways, including the minimal reactions seen in electrostatics.

Between an electron and proton, the electrostatic force is very strong, despite its weak appearance. For example, a hydrogen atom, composed of a single electron and a single proton have a gravitational force keeping them together. However, according to the order of magnitude of force, the electrostatic force between them is 1024 more than the actual gravity between each subatomic particle. The same is true no matter the atom, as each contains the same amount of electrons and protons to balance the charge.

The equation to establish this theory stems from a French physicist in the 1780s named Charles Augustin de Coulomb. Working with rudimentary theories about electromagnetism, he determined the level of force needed to maintain atomic cohesiveness in electromagnetic force despite the distance between the charges. This became known as the Coulomb law, one of the fundamental theories that define the science of electrostatics.

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Knowledge about electrostatics was known since antiquity when the ancient Greeks noticed that amber attracted light particles when it was rubbed. This prompted them to define the word electron, which ultimately created the modern terminology of electricity. Contemporary examples of electrostatic phenomena can be seen when a person rubs a rubber balloon in his or her hair and sticks it to another object. The balloon will retain a electrostatic charge, attracting it to another surface.

Charge exchanges happen every time two surfaces come in contact and separate. However, the most prevalent example of electrostatics occurs in materials that contain some sort of resistance to the flow of electricity. Due to the fact that the transfer of charges from or to a resistive surface retain their charge for a longer period of time, making observation possible. These charges eventually lose their cohesion and become neutralized in the form of discharge. This is what happens when the phenomenon of a static shock occurs.

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