Point particle

Point particle

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A point particle is an idealization
Idealization
Idealization is the process by which scientific models assume facts about the phenomenon being modeled that are strictly false. Often these assumptions are used to make models easier to understand or solve. Many times idealizations do not harm the predictive accuracy of the model for one reason or...

 of particle
Particle
A particle is, generally, a small localized object to which can be ascribed physical properties. It may also refer to:In chemistry:* Colloidal particle, part of a one-phase system of two or more components where the particles aren't individually visible.In physics:* Subatomic particle, which may be...

s heavily used in physics
Physics
Physics is a natural science that involves the study of matter and its motion through spacetime, along with related concepts such as energy and force. More broadly, it is the general analysis of nature, conducted in order to understand how the universe behaves.Physics is one of the oldest academic...

. Its defining feature is that it lacks spatial
Dimension
In physics and mathematics, the dimension of a space or object is informally defined as the minimum number of coordinates needed to specify any point within it. Thus a line has a dimension of one because only one coordinate is needed to specify a point on it...

 extension
Extension (metaphysics)
In metaphysics, extension is, roughly speaking, the property of "taking up space". René Descartes defines extension as the property of existing in more than one dimension. For Descartes, the primary characteristic of matter is extension, just as the primary characteristic of mind is consciousness...

: being zero-dimensional, it does not take up space. A point particle is an appropriate representation of any object whose size, shape, and structure is irrelevant in a given context. For example, from far enough away, an object of any shape will look and behave as a point-like object.

In the theory of gravity, physicists often discuss a point mass, meaning a point particle with a nonzero mass
Mass
Mass can be defined as a quantitive measure of the resistance an object has to change in its velocity.In physics, mass commonly refers to any of the following three properties of matter, which have been shown experimentally to be equivalent:...

 and no other properties or structure. Likewise, in electromagnetism
Electromagnetism
Electromagnetism is one of the four fundamental interactions in nature. The other three are the strong interaction, the weak interaction and gravitation...

, physicists discuss a point charge, a point particle with a nonzero charge
Charge (physics)
In physics, a charge may refer to one of many different quantities, such as the electric charge in electromagnetism or the color charge in quantum chromodynamics. Charges are associated with conserved quantum numbers.-Formal definition:...

.

Sometimes due to specific combinations of properties extended objects behave as point-like even in their immediate vicinity. For example, spherical objects interacting in 3-dimensional space whose interactions are described by the inverse square law behave in such a way as if all their matter were concentrated in their geometric centers. In Newtonian gravitation and classical electromagnetism
Electromagnetism
Electromagnetism is one of the four fundamental interactions in nature. The other three are the strong interaction, the weak interaction and gravitation...

, for example, the respective fields
Field (physics)
In physics, a field is a physical quantity associated with each point of spacetime. A field can be classified as a scalar field, a vector field, a spinor field, or a tensor field according to whether the value of the field at each point is a scalar, a vector, a spinor or, more generally, a tensor,...

 outside of a spherical object are identical to those of a point particle of equal charge/mass located at the center of the sphere.

In quantum mechanics
Quantum mechanics
Quantum mechanics, also known as quantum physics or quantum theory, is a branch of physics providing a mathematical description of much of the dual particle-like and wave-like behavior and interactions of energy and matter. It departs from classical mechanics primarily at the atomic and subatomic...

, the concept of a point particle is complicated by the Heisenberg uncertainty principle: Even an elementary particle
Elementary particle
In particle physics, an elementary particle or fundamental particle is a particle not known to have substructure; that is, it is not known to be made up of smaller particles. If an elementary particle truly has no substructure, then it is one of the basic building blocks of the universe from which...

, with no internal structure, occupies a nonzero volume. For example, a 1s
Atomic orbital
An atomic orbital is a mathematical function that describes the wave-like behavior of either one electron or a pair of electrons in an atom. This function can be used to calculate the probability of finding any electron of an atom in any specific region around the atom's nucleus...

 electron
Electron
The electron is a subatomic particle with a negative elementary electric charge. It has no known components or substructure; in other words, it is generally thought to be an elementary particle. An electron has a mass that is approximately 1/1836 that of the proton...

 in a hydrogen atom
Hydrogen atom
A hydrogen atom is an atom of the chemical element hydrogen. The electrically neutral atom contains a single positively-charged proton and a single negatively-charged electron bound to the nucleus by the Coulomb force...

 occupies a volume of ~10-30 m3. There is nevertheless a distinction between elementary particle
Elementary particle
In particle physics, an elementary particle or fundamental particle is a particle not known to have substructure; that is, it is not known to be made up of smaller particles. If an elementary particle truly has no substructure, then it is one of the basic building blocks of the universe from which...

s such as electron
Electron
The electron is a subatomic particle with a negative elementary electric charge. It has no known components or substructure; in other words, it is generally thought to be an elementary particle. An electron has a mass that is approximately 1/1836 that of the proton...

s or quark
Quark
A quark is an elementary particle and a fundamental constituent of matter. Quarks combine to form composite particles called hadrons, the most stable of which are protons and neutrons, the components of atomic nuclei. Due to a phenomenon known as color confinement, quarks are never directly...

s, which have no internal structure, versus composite particles such as proton
Proton
The proton is a subatomic particle with the symbol or and a positive electric charge of 1 elementary charge. One or more protons are present in the nucleus of each atom, along with neutrons. The number of protons in each atom is its atomic number....

s, which do have internal structure: A proton is made of three quarks. Elementary particles are sometimes called "point particles", but this is in a different sense than discussed above. For more details see elementary particle
Elementary particle
In particle physics, an elementary particle or fundamental particle is a particle not known to have substructure; that is, it is not known to be made up of smaller particles. If an elementary particle truly has no substructure, then it is one of the basic building blocks of the universe from which...

.

Point mass


Point mass (pointlike mass) is an idealistic term used to describe either matter
Matter
Matter is a general term for the substance of which all physical objects consist. Typically, matter includes atoms and other particles which have mass. A common way of defining matter is as anything that has mass and occupies volume...

 which is infinitely small, or an object which can be thought of as infinitely small. This concept in terms of size is similar to that of point particles, however unlike point particles the object need only be considered infinitely small.

Physics


A common use for point mass lies in the analysis of the gravitational force fields. When analyzing the gravitational forces in a system, it becomes impossible to account for every unit of mass
Mass
Mass can be defined as a quantitive measure of the resistance an object has to change in its velocity.In physics, mass commonly refers to any of the following three properties of matter, which have been shown experimentally to be equivalent:...

 individually. When none of the objects in the system have overlapping center of mass
Center of mass
In physics, the center of mass or barycenter of a system is the average location of all of its mass. In the case of a rigid body, the position of the center of mass is fixed in relation to the body...

 circumference
Circumference
The circumference is the distance around a closed curve. Circumference is a special perimeter.-Circumference of a circle:The circumference of a circle is the length around it....

s, it is possible to consider the object as a zero-dimensional point mass.

Mathematics


A point mass in statistics
Statistics
Statistics is the study of the collection, organization, analysis, and interpretation of data. It deals with all aspects of this, including the planning of data collection in terms of the design of surveys and experiments....

 is a discontinuous segment in a probability distribution
Probability distribution
In probability theory, a probability mass, probability density, or probability distribution is a function that describes the probability of a random variable taking certain values....

. To calculate such point mass, an integration
Integral
Integration is an important concept in mathematics and, together with its inverse, differentiation, is one of the two main operations in calculus...

 is carried out over the entire range of the random variable
Random variable
In probability and statistics, a random variable or stochastic variable is, roughly speaking, a variable whose value results from a measurement on some type of random process. Formally, it is a function from a probability space, typically to the real numbers, which is measurable functionmeasurable...

, on the probability distribution of the continuous part. After equating this integral to 1, the point mass can be found by further calculation.

Point charge



A point charge is an idealized model of a particle which has an electric charge
Electric charge
Electric charge is a physical property of matter that causes it to experience a force when near other electrically charged matter. Electric charge comes in two types, called positive and negative. Two positively charged substances, or objects, experience a mutual repulsive force, as do two...

. A point charge is an electric charge at a mathematical point
Point (geometry)
In geometry, topology and related branches of mathematics a spatial point is a primitive notion upon which other concepts may be defined. In geometry, points are zero-dimensional; i.e., they do not have volume, area, length, or any other higher-dimensional analogue. In branches of mathematics...

 with no dimensions.

The fundamental equation
Equation
An equation is a mathematical statement that asserts the equality of two expressions. In modern notation, this is written by placing the expressions on either side of an equals sign , for examplex + 3 = 5\,asserts that x+3 is equal to 5...

 of electrostatics
Electrostatics
Electrostatics is the branch of physics that deals with the phenomena and properties of stationary or slow-moving electric charges....

 is Coulomb's law
Coulomb's law
Coulomb's law or Coulomb's inverse-square law, is a law of physics describing the electrostatic interaction between electrically charged particles. It was first published in 1785 by French physicist Charles Augustin de Coulomb and was essential to the development of the theory of electromagnetism...

, which describes the electric force between two point charges. The electric field
Electric field
In physics, an electric field surrounds electrically charged particles and time-varying magnetic fields. The electric field depicts the force exerted on other electrically charged objects by the electrically charged particle the field is surrounding...

 associated with a classical point charge increases to infinity as the distance from the point charge decreases towards zero
0 (number)
0 is both a numberand the numerical digit used to represent that number in numerals.It fulfills a central role in mathematics as the additive identity of the integers, real numbers, and many other algebraic structures. As a digit, 0 is used as a placeholder in place value systems...

 making energy (thus mass) of point charge infinite. In quantum electrodynamics
Quantum electrodynamics
Quantum electrodynamics is the relativistic quantum field theory of electrodynamics. In essence, it describes how light and matter interact and is the first theory where full agreement between quantum mechanics and special relativity is achieved...

, developed in part by Richard Feynman
Richard Feynman
Richard Phillips Feynman was an American physicist known for his work in the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics, the theory of quantum electrodynamics and the physics of the superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium, as well as in particle physics...

, the mathematical method of renormalization
Renormalization
In quantum field theory, the statistical mechanics of fields, and the theory of self-similar geometric structures, renormalization is any of a collection of techniques used to treat infinities arising in calculated quantities....

 eliminates the infinite divergence
Divergence
In vector calculus, divergence is a vector operator that measures the magnitude of a vector field's source or sink at a given point, in terms of a signed scalar. More technically, the divergence represents the volume density of the outward flux of a vector field from an infinitesimal volume around...

 of the point charge.

Earnshaw's theorem
Earnshaw's theorem
Earnshaw's theorem states that a collection of point charges cannot be maintained in a stable stationary equilibrium configuration solely by the electrostatic interaction of the charges. This was first proven by British mathematician Samuel Earnshaw in 1842. It is usually referenced to magnetic...

 states that a collection of point charges cannot be maintained in an equilibrium
Mechanical equilibrium
A standard definition of static equilibrium is:This is a strict definition, and often the term "static equilibrium" is used in a more relaxed manner interchangeably with "mechanical equilibrium", as defined next....

 configuration solely by the electrostatic interaction of the charges.

In quantum mechanics




In quantum mechanics
Quantum mechanics
Quantum mechanics, also known as quantum physics or quantum theory, is a branch of physics providing a mathematical description of much of the dual particle-like and wave-like behavior and interactions of energy and matter. It departs from classical mechanics primarily at the atomic and subatomic...

, there is a distinction between an elementary particle
Elementary particle
In particle physics, an elementary particle or fundamental particle is a particle not known to have substructure; that is, it is not known to be made up of smaller particles. If an elementary particle truly has no substructure, then it is one of the basic building blocks of the universe from which...

 (also called "point particle") and a composite particle. An elementary particle, such as an electron
Electron
The electron is a subatomic particle with a negative elementary electric charge. It has no known components or substructure; in other words, it is generally thought to be an elementary particle. An electron has a mass that is approximately 1/1836 that of the proton...

, quark
Quark
A quark is an elementary particle and a fundamental constituent of matter. Quarks combine to form composite particles called hadrons, the most stable of which are protons and neutrons, the components of atomic nuclei. Due to a phenomenon known as color confinement, quarks are never directly...

, or photon
Photon
In physics, a photon is an elementary particle, the quantum of the electromagnetic interaction and the basic unit of light and all other forms of electromagnetic radiation. It is also the force carrier for the electromagnetic force...

, is a particle with no internal structure, whereas a composite particle, such as a proton
Proton
The proton is a subatomic particle with the symbol or and a positive electric charge of 1 elementary charge. One or more protons are present in the nucleus of each atom, along with neutrons. The number of protons in each atom is its atomic number....

 or neutron
Neutron
The neutron is a subatomic hadron particle which has the symbol or , no net electric charge and a mass slightly larger than that of a proton. With the exception of hydrogen, nuclei of atoms consist of protons and neutrons, which are therefore collectively referred to as nucleons. The number of...

, has an internal structure (see figure).
However, neither elementary nor composite particles are spatially localized, because of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. The particle wavepacket always occupies a nonzero volume. For example, see atomic orbital
Atomic orbital
An atomic orbital is a mathematical function that describes the wave-like behavior of either one electron or a pair of electrons in an atom. This function can be used to calculate the probability of finding any electron of an atom in any specific region around the atom's nucleus...

: The electron is an elementary particle, but its quantum states form three-dimensional patterns.

Nevertheless, there is good reason that an elementary particle is often called a point particle. Even if an elementary particle has a delocalized wavepacket, the wavepacket is in fact a quantum superposition
Quantum superposition
Quantum superposition is a fundamental principle of quantum mechanics. It holds that a physical system exists in all its particular, theoretically possible states simultaneously; but, when measured, it gives a result corresponding to only one of the possible configurations.Mathematically, it...

 of quantum states wherein the particle is exactly localized. This is not true for a composite particle, which can never be represented as a superposition of exactly-localized quantum states. It is in this sense that physicists can discuss the intrinsic "size" of a particle: The size of its internal structure, not the size of its wavepacket. The "size" of an elementary particle, in this sense, is exactly zero.

For example, for the electron, experimental evidence shows that the size of an electron is less than 10-18 m. This is consistent with the expected value of exactly zero. (This should not be confused with the classical electron radius
Classical electron radius
The classical electron radius, also known as the Lorentz radius or the Thomson scattering length, is based on a classical relativistic model of the electron...

, which, despite the name, is unrelated to the actual size of an electron.)

See also

  • Elementary Particle
    Elementary particle
    In particle physics, an elementary particle or fundamental particle is a particle not known to have substructure; that is, it is not known to be made up of smaller particles. If an elementary particle truly has no substructure, then it is one of the basic building blocks of the universe from which...

    • Quark
      Quark
      A quark is an elementary particle and a fundamental constituent of matter. Quarks combine to form composite particles called hadrons, the most stable of which are protons and neutrons, the components of atomic nuclei. Due to a phenomenon known as color confinement, quarks are never directly...

    • Lepton
      Lepton
      A lepton is an elementary particle and a fundamental constituent of matter. The best known of all leptons is the electron which governs nearly all of chemistry as it is found in atoms and is directly tied to all chemical properties. Two main classes of leptons exist: charged leptons , and neutral...

  • Charge (physics)
    Charge (physics)
    In physics, a charge may refer to one of many different quantities, such as the electric charge in electromagnetism or the color charge in quantum chromodynamics. Charges are associated with conserved quantum numbers.-Formal definition:...

     (general concept, not limited to electric charge
    Electric charge
    Electric charge is a physical property of matter that causes it to experience a force when near other electrically charged matter. Electric charge comes in two types, called positive and negative. Two positively charged substances, or objects, experience a mutual repulsive force, as do two...

    )
  • Self-propelled particle

Further reading

  • Eric W. Weisstein, "Point Charge".
  • F. H. J. Cornish, "Classical radiation theory and point charges". Proc. Phys. Soc. 86 427-442, 1965. doi:10.1088/0370-1328/86/3/301
  • O. D. Jefimenko, "Direct calculation of the electric and magnetic fields of an electric point charge moving with constant velocity". Am. J. Phys.62 (1994), 79.