Einstein 1938: The Field as Representation

Reference: Evolution of Physics

This paper presents Chapter III, section 1 from the book THE EVOLUTION OF PHYSICS by A. EINSTEIN and L. INFELD. The contents are from the original publication of this book by Simon and Schuster, New York (1942).

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.

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The Field as Representation

DURING the second half of the nineteenth century new and revolutionary ideas were introduced into physics; they opened the way to a new philosophical view, differing from the mechanical one. The results of the work of Faraday, Maxwell, and Hertz led to the development of modern physics, to the creation of new concepts, forming a new picture of reality.

Our task now is to describe the break brought about in science by these new concepts and to show how they gradually gained clarity and strength. We shall try to reconstruct the line of progress logically, without bothering too much about chronological order.

The new concepts originated in connection with the phenomena of electricity, but it is simpler to introduce them, for the first time, through mechanics. We know that two particles attract each other and that this force of attraction decreases with the square of the distance. We can represent this fact in a new way, and shall do so even though it is difficult to understand the advantage of this. The small circle in our drawing represents an attracting body, say, the sun. Actually, our diagram should be imagined as a model in space and not as a drawing on a plane. Our small circle, then, stands for a sphere in space, say, the sun. A body, the so-called test body, brought somewhere within the vicinity of the sun will be attracted along the line connecting the centres of the two bodies. Thus the lines in our drawing indicate the direction of the attracting force of the sun for different positions of the test body. The arrow on each line shows that the force is directed toward the sun; this means the force is an attraction. These are the lines of force of the gravitational field. For the moment, this is merely a name and there is no reason for stressing it further. There is one characteristic feature of our drawing which will be emphasized later. The lines of force are constructed in space, where no matter is present. For the moment, all the lines of force, or briefly speaking, the field, indicate only how a test body would behave if brought into the vicinity of the sphere for which the field is constructed.

Faraday’s lines of force are the earliest representation of field. They exist in space where there is no matter.

The lines in our space model are always perpendicular to the surface of the sphere. Since they diverge from one point, they are dense near the sphere and become less and less so farther away. If we increase the distance from the sphere twice or three times, then the density of the lines, in our space model, though not in the drawing, will be four or nine times less. Thus the lines serve a double purpose. On the one hand, they show the direction of the force acting on a body brought into the neighbourhood of the sphere-sun. On the other hand, the density of the lines of force in space shows how the force varies with the distance. The drawing of the field, correctly interpreted, represents the direction of the gravitational force and its dependence on distance. One can read the law of gravitation from such a drawing just as well as from a description of the action in words, or in the precise and economical language of mathematics. This field representation, as we shall call it, may appear clear and interesting, but there is no reason to believe that it marks any real advance. It would be quite difficult to prove its usefulness in the case of gravitation. Some may, perhaps, find it helpful to regard these lines as something more than drawings, and to imagine the real actions of force passing through them. This may be done, but then the speed of the actions along the lines of force must be assumed as infinitely great! The force between two bodies, according to Newton’s law, depends only on distance; time does not enter the picture. The force has to pass from one body to another in no time! But, as motion with infinite speed cannot mean much to any reasonable person, an attempt to make our drawing something more than a model leads nowhere.

The lines of force indicate the direction of the force. The density of the lines of force in space shows how the force varies with the distance. If this field carries motion with infinite speed (as per Newton’s law) it cannot be taken as real.

We do not intend, however, to discuss the gravitational problem just now It served only as an introduction, simplifying the explanation of similar methods of reasoning in the theory of electricity.

We shall begin with a discussion of the experiment which created serious difficulties in our mechanical interpretation. We had a current flowing through a wire circuit in the form of a circle. In the middle of the circuit was a magnetic needle. The moment the current began to flow a new force appeared, acting on the magnetic pole, and perpendicular to any line connecting the wire and the pole. This force, if caused by a circulating charge, depended, as shown by Rowland’s experiment, on the velocity of the charge. These experimental facts contradicted the philosophical view that all forces must act on the line connecting the particles and can depend only upon distance.

The magnetic force does not act as postulated by the mechanical view.

The exact expression for the force of a current acting on a magnetic pole is quite complicated, much more so, indeed, than the expression for gravitational forces. We can, however, attempt to visualize the actions just as we did in the case of a gravitational force. Our question is: with what force does the current act upon a magnetic pole placed somewhere in its vicinity? It would be rather difficult to describe this force in words. Even a mathematical formula would be complicated and awkward. It is best to represent all we know about the acting forces by a drawing, or rather by a spatial model, with lines of force. Some difficulty is caused by the fact that a magnetic pole exists only in connection with another magnetic pole, forming a dipole. We can, however, always imagine the magnetic needle of such length that only the force acting upon the pole nearer the current has to be taken into account. The other pole is far enough away for the force acting upon it to be negligible. To avoid ambiguity we shall say that the magnetic pole brought nearer to the wire is the positive one.

We postulate that the magnetic pole brought nearer to the wire is the positive one.

The character of the force acting upon the positive magnetic pole can be read from our drawing.

First we notice an arrow near the wire indicating the direction of the current, from higher to lower potential. All other lines are just lines offeree belonging to this current and lying on a certain plane. If drawn properly, they tell us the direction of the force vector representing the action of the current on a given positive magnetic pole as well as something about the length of this vector. Force, as we know, is a vector, and to determine it we must know its direction as well as its length. We are chiefly concerned with the problem of the direction of the force acting upon a pole. Our question is: how can we find, from the drawing, the direction of the force, at any point in space?

How can we find, from the drawing, the direction of the force, at any point in space?

The rule for reading the direction of a force from such a model is not as simple as in our previous example, where the lines of force were straight. In our next diagram only one line of force is drawn in order to clarify the procedure. The force vector lies on the tangent to the line of force, as indicated. The arrow of the force vector and the arrows on the line of force point in the same direction. Thus this is the direction in which the force acts on a magnetic pole at this point. A good drawing, or rather a good model, also tells us something about the length of the force vector at any point. This vector has to be longer where the lines are denser, i.e., near the wire, shorter where the lines are less dense, i.e., far from the wire.

This vector has to be longer where the lines are denser, i.e., near the wire, shorter where the lines are less dense, i.e., far from the wire.

In this way, the lines of force, or in other words, the field, enable us to determine the forces acting on a magnetic pole at any point in space. This, for the time being, is the only justification for our elaborate construction of the field. Knowing what the field expresses, we shall examine with a far deeper interest the lines of force corresponding to the current. These lines are circles surrounding the wire and lying on the plane perpendicular to that in which the wire is situated. Reading the character of the force from the drawing, we come once more to the conclusion that the force acts in a direction perpendicular to any line connecting the wire and the pole, for the tangent to a circle is always perpendicular to its radius. Our entire knowledge of the acting forces can be summarized in the construction of the field. We sandwich the concept of the field between that of the current and that of the magnetic pole in order to represent the acting forces in a simple way.

Our entire knowledge of the acting forces can be summarized in the construction of the field.

Every current is associated with a magnetic field, i.e., a force always acts on a magnetic pole brought near the wire through which a current flows. We may remark in passing that this property enables us to construct sensitive apparatus for detecting the existence of a current. Once having learned how to read the character of the magnetic forces from the field model of a current, we shall always draw the field surrounding the wire through which the current flows, in order to represent the action of the magnetic forces at any point in space. Our first example is the so-called solenoid. This is, in fact , a coil of wire as shown in the drawing. Our aim is to learn, by experiment, all we can about the magnetic field associated with the current flowing through a solenoid and to incorporate this knowledge in the construction of a field. A drawing represents our result. The curved lines of force are closed, and surround the solenoid in a way characteristic of the magnetic field of a current.

The curved lines of force are closed, and surround the solenoid in a way characteristic of the magnetic field of a current.

The field of a bar magnet can be represented in the same way as that of a current. Another drawing shows this. The lines of force are directed from the positive to the negative pole. The force vector always lies on^ the tangent to the line of force and is longest near the poles because the density of the lines is greatest at these points. The force vector represents the action of the magnet on a positive magnetic pole. In this case the magnet and not the current is the “source” of the field.

In this case the magnet and not the current is the “source” of the field.

Our last two drawings should be carefully compared. In the first, we have the magnetic field of a current flowing through a solenoid; in the second, the field of a bar magnet. Let us ignore both the solenoid and the bar and observe only the two outside fields. We immediately notice that they are of exactly the same character; in each case the lines of force lead from one end of the solenoid or bar to the other.

The field representation yields its first fruit! It would be rather difficult to see any strong similarity between the current flowing through a solenoid and a bar magnet if this were not revealed by our construction of the field.

The field representation reveals the clue that in each case the lines of force lead from one end of the solenoid or bar to the other.

The concept of field can now be put to a much more severe test. We shall soon see whether it is anything more than a new representation of the acting forces. We could reason: assume, for a moment, that the field characterizes all actions determined by its sources in a unique way. This is only a guess. It would mean that if a solenoid and a bar magnet have the same field, then all their influences must also be the same. It would mean that two solenoids, carrying electric currents, behave like two bar magnets, that they attract or repel each other, depending exactly as in the case of bars, on their relative positions. It would also mean that a solenoid and a bar attract or repel each other in the same way as two bars. Briefly speaking, it would mean that all actions of a solenoid through which a current flows and of a corresponding bar magnet are the same, since the field alone is responsible for them, and the field in both cases is of the same character. Experiment fully confirms our guess!

All actions of a solenoid through which a current flows and of a corresponding bar magnet are the same, since the field alone is responsible for them

How difficult it would be to find those facts without the concept of field! The expression for a force acting between a wire through which a current flows and a magnetic pole is very complicated. In the case of two solenoids, we should have to investigate the forces with which two currents act upon each other. But if we do this, with the help of the field, we immediately notice the character of all those actions at the moment when the similarity between the field of a solenoid and that of a bar magnet is seen.

We have the right to regard the field as something much more than we did at first. The properties of the field alone appear to be essential for the description of phenomena; the differences in source do not matter. The concept of field reveals its importance by leading to new experimental facts.

The field presents the force pictorially, which, otherwise, is very difficult to present mathematically.

The field proved a very helpful concept. It began as something placed between the source and the magnetic needle in order to describe the acting force. It was thought of as an “agent” of the current, through which all action of the current was performed. But now the agent also acts as an interpreter, one who translates the laws into a simple, clear language, easily understood.

The field provides the connection between source and its effect as intended by Faraday.

The first success of the field description suggests that it may be convenient to consider all actions of currents, magnets and charges indirectly, i.e., with the help of the field as an interpreter. A field may be regarded as something always associated with a current. It is there even in the absence of a magnetic pole to test its existence. Let us try to follow this new clue consistently.

The field of a charged conductor can be introduced in much the same way as the gravitational field, or the field of a current or magnet. Again only the simplest example! To design the field of a positively charged sphere, we must ask what kind of forces are acting on a small positively charged test body brought near the source of the field, the charged sphere. The fact that we use a positively and not a negatively charged test body is merely a convention, indicating in which direction the arrows on the line of force should be drawn. The model is analogous to that of a gravitational field (p. 130) because of the similarity between Coulomb’s law and Newton’s. The only difference between the two models is that the arrows point in opposite directions. Indeed, we have repulsion of two positive charges and attraction of two masses. However, the field of a sphere with a negative charge will be identical with a gravitational field since the small positive testing charge will be attracted by the source of the field.

If both electric and magnetic poles are at rest, there is no action between them, neither attraction nor repulsion. Expressing the same fact in the field language, we can say: an electrostatic field does not influence a magnetostatic one and vice versa. The words “static field” mean a field that does not change with time. The magnets and charges would rest near one another for an eternity if no external forces disturbed them. Electrostatic, magnetostatic and gravitational fields are all of different character. They do not mix; each preserves its individuality regardless of the others.

Electrostatic, magnetostatic and gravitational fields are all of different character. They do not mix; each preserves its individuality regardless of the others.

Let us return to the electric sphere which was, until now, at rest, and assume that it begins to move owing to the action of some external force. The charged sphere moves. In the field language this sentence reads: the field of the electric charge changes with time. But the motion of this charged sphere is, as we already know from Rowland’s experiment, equivalent to a current. Further, every current is accompanied by a magnetic field. Thus the chain of our argument is:

We, therefore, conclude: The change of an electric field produced by the motion of a charge is always accompanied by a magnetic fold.

The change of an electric field produced by the motion of a charge is always accompanied by a magnetic fold.

Our conclusion is based on Oersted’s experiment, but it covers much more. It contains the recognition that the association of an electric field, changing in time, with a magnetic field is essential for our further argument.

As long as a charge is at rest there is only an electrostatic field. But a magnetic field appears as soon as the charge begins to move. We can say more. The magnetic field created by the motion of the charge will be stronger if the charge is greater and if it moves faster. This also is a consequence of Rowland’s experiment. Once again using the field language, we can say: the faster the electric field changes, the stronger the accompanying magnetic field.

The faster the electric field changes, the stronger the accompanying magnetic field.

We have tried here to translate familiar facts from the language of fluids, constructed according to the old mechanical view, into the new language of fields. We shall see later how clear, instructive, and far-reaching our new language is.

We have progressed from the language of fluids to the language of field.

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FINAL COMMENTS

Field represents continuous force filling the space. Force is the core property of substance. From this we may conclude that field is the flimsiest form of substance. This is what Faraday envisioned will replace aether. In my view, the field is the best representation of aether.

The direction and density of force may vary in the field, but it maintains continuity. The field provides the connection between source and its effect as intended by Faraday. It explains the mystery of “action at a distance”.

Our entire knowledge of the acting forces can be summarized in the construction of the field. The field presents the force pictorially, which, otherwise, is very difficult to present mathematically. Electrostatic, electromagnetic and gravitational fields are all of different character. They do not mix; each preserves its individuality regardless of the others.

The electrostatic field exists only at the surface of the body because it extends from the interface between particle and void. The electromagnetic field extends from the interstices among nuclei inside the body where current of electrons flows. The gravitational field extends from the nuclei of the body where the lines of force originate and terminate.

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