Electromagnetism is the study of the electromagnetic force which is a type of physical interaction that occurs between electrically charged particles. The electromagnetic force usually manifests as electromagnetic fields, such as electric fields, magnetic fields and light. The electromagnetic force is one of the four fundamental interactions in nature. The other three are the strong interaction, the weak interaction, and gravitation.[1]

The word electromagnetism is a compound form of two Greek terms, ἢλεκτρον, ēlektron, "amber", and μαγνήτης, magnetic, from "magnítis líthos" (μαγνήτης λίθος), which means "magnesian stone", a type of iron ore. The science of electromagnetic phenomena is defined in terms of the electromagnetic force, sometimes called the Lorentz force, which includes both electricity and magnetism as elements of one phenomenon.

The electromagnetic force plays a major role in determining the internal properties of most objects encountered in daily life. Ordinary matter takes its form as a result of intermolecular forces between individual molecules in matter. Electrons are bound by electromagnetic wave mechanics into orbitals around atomic nuclei to form atoms, which are the building blocks of molecules. This governs the processes involved in chemistry, which arise from interactions between the electrons of neighboring atoms, which are in turn determined by the interaction between electromagnetic force and the momentum of the electrons.

There are numerous mathematical descriptions of the electromagnetic field. In classical electrodynamics, electric fields are described as electric potential and electric current in Ohm's law, magnetic fields are associated with electromagnetic induction and magnetism, and Maxwell's equations describe how electric and magnetic fields are generated and altered by each other and by charges and currents.

The theoretical implications of electromagnetism, in particular the establishment of the speed of light based on properties of the "medium" of propagation (permeability and permittivity), led to the development of special relativity by Albert Einstein in 1905.

Although electromagnetism is considered one of the four fundamental forces, at high energy the electroweak force and electromagnetism are unified. In the history of the universe, during the quark epoch, the electroweak force split into the electromagnetic and weak force.


  • History of the theory 1
  • Fundamental forces 2
  • Classical electrodynamics 3
  • Quantum mechanics 4
    • Photoelectric effect 4.1
    • Quantum electrodynamics 4.2
    • Electroweak interaction 4.3
  • Quantities and units 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • Further reading 8
    • Web sources 8.1
    • Lecture notes 8.2
    • Textbooks 8.3
    • General references 8.4
  • External links 9

History of the theory

Originally electricity and magnetism were thought of as two separate forces. This view changed, however, with the publication of James Clerk Maxwell's 1873 Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism in which the interactions of positive and negative charges were shown to be regulated by one force. There are four main effects resulting from these interactions, all of which have been clearly demonstrated by experiments:

  1. Electric charges attract or repel one another with a force inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them: unlike charges attract, like ones repel.
  2. Magnetic poles (or states of polarization at individual points) attract or repel one another in a similar way and always come in pairs: every north pole is yoked to a south pole.
  3. An electric current in a wire creates a circular magnetic field around the wire, its direction (clockwise or counter-clockwise) depending on that of the current.
  4. A current is induced in a loop of wire when it is moved towards or away from a magnetic field, or a magnet is moved towards or away from it, the direction of current depending on that of the movement.

While preparing for an evening lecture on 21 April 1820, Hans Christian Ørsted made a surprising observation. As he was setting up his materials, he noticed a compass needle deflected from magnetic north when the electric current from the battery he was using was switched on and off. This deflection convinced him that magnetic fields radiate from all sides of a wire carrying an electric current, just as light and heat do, and that it confirmed a direct relationship between electricity and magnetism.

At the time of discovery, Ørsted did not suggest any satisfactory explanation of the phenomenon, nor did he try to represent the phenomenon in a mathematical framework. However, three months later he began more intensive investigations. Soon thereafter he published his findings, proving that an electric current produces a magnetic field as it flows through a wire. The CGS unit of magnetic induction (oersted) is named in honor of his contributions to the field of electromagnetism.

His findings resulted in intensive research throughout the scientific community in electrodynamics. They influenced French physicist André-Marie Ampère's developments of a single mathematical form to represent the magnetic forces between current-carrying conductors. Ørsted's discovery also represented a major step toward a unified concept of energy.

This unification, which was observed by Michael Faraday, extended by James Clerk Maxwell, and partially reformulated by Oliver Heaviside and Heinrich Hertz, is one of the key accomplishments of 19th century mathematical physics. It had far-reaching consequences, one of which was the understanding of the nature of light. Unlike what was proposed in Electromagnetism, light and other electromagnetic waves are at the present seen as taking the form of quantized, self-propagating oscillatory electromagnetic field disturbances which have been called photons. Different frequencies of oscillation give rise to the different forms of electromagnetic radiation, from radio waves at the lowest frequencies, to visible light at intermediate frequencies, to gamma rays at the highest frequencies.

Ørsted was not the only person to examine the relation between electricity and magnetism. In 1802 Gian Domenico Romagnosi, an Italian legal scholar, deflected a magnetic needle by electrostatic charges. Actually, no galvanic current existed in the setup and hence no electromagnetism was present. An account of the discovery was published in 1802 in an Italian newspaper, but it was largely overlooked by the contemporary scientific community.[2]

Fundamental forces

Representation of the electric field vector of a wave of circularly polarized electromagnetic radiation.

The electromagnetic force is one of the four known fundamental forces. The other fundamental forces are:

All other forces (e.g., friction) are ultimately derived from these fundamental forces and momentum carried by the movement of particles.

The electromagnetic force is the one responsible for practically all the phenomena one encounters in daily life above the nuclear scale, with the exception of gravity. Roughly speaking, all the forces involved in interactions between atoms can be explained by the electromagnetic force acting on the electrically charged atomic nuclei and electrons inside and around the atoms, together with how these particles carry momentum by their movement. This includes the forces we experience in "pushing" or "pulling" ordinary material objects, which come from the intermolecular forces between the individual molecules in our bodies and those in the objects. It also includes all forms of chemical phenomena.

A necessary part of understanding the intra-atomic to intermolecular forces is the effective force generated by the momentum of the electrons' movement, and that electrons move between interacting atoms, carrying momentum with them. As a collection of electrons becomes more confined, their minimum momentum necessarily increases due to the Pauli exclusion principle. The behaviour of matter at the molecular scale including its density is determined by the balance between the electromagnetic force and the force generated by the exchange of momentum carried by the electrons themselves.

Classical electrodynamics

The scientist William Gilbert proposed, in his De Magnete (1600), that electricity and magnetism, while both capable of causing attraction and repulsion of objects, were distinct effects. Mariners had noticed that lightning strikes had the ability to disturb a compass needle, but the link between lightning and electricity was not confirmed until Benjamin Franklin's proposed experiments in 1752. One of the first to discover and publish a link between man-made electric current and magnetism was Romagnosi, who in 1802 noticed that connecting a wire across a voltaic pile deflected a nearby compass needle. However, the effect did not become widely known until 1820, when Ørsted performed a similar experiment.[3] Ørsted's work influenced Ampère to produce a theory of electromagnetism that set the subject on a mathematical foundation.

A theory of electromagnetism, known as classical electromagnetism, was developed by various physicists over the course of the 19th century, culminating in the work of James Clerk Maxwell, who unified the preceding developments into a single theory and discovered the electromagnetic nature of light. In classical electromagnetism, the electromagnetic field obeys a set of equations known as Maxwell's equations, and the electromagnetic force is given by the Lorentz force law.

One of the peculiarities of classical electromagnetism is that it is difficult to reconcile with classical mechanics, but it is compatible with special relativity. According to Maxwell's equations, the speed of light in a vacuum is a universal constant, dependent only on the electrical permittivity and magnetic permeability of free space. This violates Galilean invariance, a long-standing cornerstone of classical mechanics. One way to reconcile the two theories (electromagnetism and classical mechanics) is to assume the existence of a luminiferous aether through which the light propagates. However, subsequent experimental efforts failed to detect the presence of the aether. After important contributions of Hendrik Lorentz and Henri Poincaré, in 1905, Albert Einstein solved the problem with the introduction of special relativity, which replaces classical kinematics with a new theory of kinematics that is compatible with classical electromagnetism. (For more information, see History of special relativity.)

In addition, relativity theory shows that in moving frames of reference a magnetic field transforms to a field with a nonzero electric component and vice versa; thus firmly showing that they are two sides of the same coin, and thus the term "electromagnetism". (For more information, see Classical electromagnetism and special relativity and Covariant formulation of classical electromagnetism.

Quantum mechanics

Photoelectric effect

In another paper published in 1905, Albert Einstein undermined the very foundations of classical electromagnetism. In his theory of the photoelectric effect (for which he won the Nobel prize in physics) and inspired by the idea of Max Planck's "quanta", he posited that light could exist in discrete particle-like quantities as well, which later came to be known as photons. Einstein's theory of the photoelectric effect extended the insights that appeared in the solution of the ultraviolet catastrophe presented by Max Planck in 1900. In his work, Planck showed that hot objects emit electromagnetic radiation in discrete packets ("quanta"), which leads to a finite total energy emitted as black body radiation. Both of these results were in direct contradiction with the classical view of light as a continuous wave. Planck's and Einstein's theories were progenitors of quantum mechanics, which, when formulated in 1925, necessitated the invention of a quantum theory of electromagnetism. This theory, completed in the 1940s-1950s, is known as quantum electrodynamics (or "QED"), and, in situations where perturbation theory is applicable, is one of the most accurate theories known to physics.

Quantum electrodynamics

All electromagnetic phenomena are underpinned by quantum mechanics, specifically by quantum electrodynamics (which includes classical electrodynamics as a limiting case) and this accounts for almost all physical phenomena observable to the unaided human senses, including light and other electromagnetic radiation, all of chemistry, most of mechanics (excepting gravitation), and, of course, magnetism and electricity.

Electroweak interaction

The electroweak interaction is the unified description of two of the four known fundamental interactions of nature: electromagnetism and the weak interaction. Although these two forces appear very different at everyday low energies, the theory models them as two different aspects of the same force. Above the unification energy, on the order of 100 GeV, they would merge into a single electroweak force. Thus if the universe is hot enough (approximately 1015 K, a temperature exceeded until shortly after the Big Bang) then the electromagnetic force and weak force merge into a combined electroweak force. During the electroweak epoch, the electroweak force separated from the strong force. During the quark epoch, the electroweak force split into the electromagnetic and weak force.

Quantities and units

Electromagnetic units are part of a system of electrical units based primarily upon the magnetic properties of electric currents, the fundamental SI unit being the ampere. The units are:

In the electromagnetic cgs system, electric current is a fundamental quantity defined via Ampère's law and takes the permeability as a dimensionless quantity (relative permeability) whose value in a vacuum is unity. As a consequence, the square of the speed of light appears explicitly in some of the equations interrelating quantities in this system.
SI electromagnetism units
Symbol[4] Name of Quantity Derived Units Unit Base Units
I electric current ampere (SI base unit) A A (= W/V = C/s)
Q electric charge coulomb C A⋅s
U, ΔV, Δφ; E potential difference; electromotive force volt V kg⋅m2⋅s−3⋅A−1 (= J/C)
R; Z; X electric resistance; impedance; reactance ohm Ω kg⋅m2⋅s−3⋅A−2 (= V/A)
ρ resistivity ohm metre Ω⋅m kg⋅m3⋅s−3⋅A−2
P electric power watt W kg⋅m2⋅s−3 (= V⋅A)
C capacitance farad F kg−1⋅m−2⋅s4⋅A2 (= C/V)
E electric field strength volt per metre V/m kg⋅m⋅s−3⋅A−1 (= N/C)
D electric displacement field coulomb per square metre C/m2 A⋅s⋅m−2
ε permittivity farad per metre F/m kg−1⋅m−3⋅s4⋅A2
χe electric susceptibility (dimensionless)
G; Y; B conductance; admittance; susceptance siemens S kg−1⋅m−2⋅s3⋅A2 (= Ω−1)
κ, γ, σ conductivity siemens per metre S/m kg−1⋅m−3⋅s3⋅A2
B magnetic flux density, magnetic induction tesla T kg⋅s−2⋅A−1 (= Wb/m2 = N⋅A−1⋅m−1)
\Phi magnetic flux weber Wb kg⋅m2⋅s−2⋅A−1 (= V⋅s)
H magnetic field strength ampere per metre A/m A⋅m−1
L, M inductance henry H kg⋅m2⋅s−2⋅A−2 (= Wb/A = V⋅s/A)
μ permeability henry per metre H/m kg⋅m⋅s−2⋅A−2
χ magnetic susceptibility (dimensionless)

Formulas for physical laws of electromagnetism (such as Maxwell's equations) need to be adjusted depending on what system of units one uses. This is because there is no one-to-one correspondence between electromagnetic units in SI and those in CGS, as is the case for mechanical units. Furthermore, within CGS, there are several plausible choices of electromagnetic units, leading to different unit "sub-systems", including Gaussian, "ESU", "EMU", and Heaviside–Lorentz. Among these choices, Gaussian units are the most common today, and in fact the phrase "CGS units" is often used to refer specifically to CGS-Gaussian units.

See also


  1. ^ Ravaioli, Fawwaz T. Ulaby, Eric Michielssen, Umberto (2010). Fundamentals of applied electromagnetics (6th ed.). Boston: Prentice Hall. p. 13.  
  2. ^ Martins, Roberto de Andrade. "Romagnosi and Volta’s Pile: Early Difficulties in the Interpretation of Voltaic Electricity". In Fabio Bevilacqua and Lucio Fregonese (eds). Nuova Voltiana: Studies on Volta and his Times. vol. 3. Università degli Studi di Pavia. pp. 81–102. Retrieved 2010-12-02. 
  3. ^ Stern, Dr. David P.; Peredo, Mauricio (2001-11-25). "Magnetic Fields -- History". NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Retrieved 2009-11-27. 
  4. ^ International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (1993). Quantities, Units and Symbols in Physical Chemistry, 2nd edition, Oxford: Blackwell Science. ISBN 0-632-03583-8. pp. 14–15. Electronic version.

Further reading

Web sources

  • Nave, R. "Electricity and magnetism". HyperPhysics. Georgia State University. Retrieved 2013-11-12. 

Lecture notes

  • Lewin, Walter; Belcher, John; Dourmashkin, Peter (Fall 2010). "8.02SC Physics II: Electricity and Magnetism". MIT OpenCourseWare. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Retrieved 12 November 2013. 
  • Littlejohn, Robert (Spring 2011). "Emission and absorption of radiation". Physics 221B: Quantum mechanics. University of California Berkeley. Retrieved 2013-11-12. 
  • Littlejohn, Robert (Spring 2011). "The Classical Electromagnetic Field Hamiltonian". Physics 221B: Quantum mechanics. University of California Berkeley. Retrieved 2013-11-12. 


  • G.A.G. Bennet (1974). Electricity and Modern Physics (2nd ed.). Edward Arnold (UK).  
  • Dibner, Bern (2012). Oersted and the discovery of electromagnetism. Literary Licensing, LLC.  
  • Durney, Carl H. and Johnson, Curtis C. (1969). Introduction to modern electromagnetics.  
  • Fleisch, Daniel (2008). A Student's Guide to Maxwell's Equations. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.  
  • I.S. Grant, W.R. Phillips, Manchester Physics (2008). Electromagnetism (2nd ed.). John Wiley & Sons.  
  • Moliton, André (2007). Basic electromagnetism and materials. 430 pages (New York City: Springer-Verlag New York, LLC).  
  • Rao, Nannapaneni N. (1994). Elements of engineering electromagnetics (4th ed.).  
  • Rothwell, Edward J.; Cloud, Michael J. (2001). Electromagnetics. CRC Press.  
  • Tipler, Paul (1998). Physics for Scientists and Engineers: Vol. 2: Light, Electricity and Magnetism (4th ed.). W. H. Freeman.  
  • Wangsness, Roald K.; Cloud, Michael J. (1986). Electromagnetic Fields (2nd Edition). Wiley.  

General references

  • A. Beiser (1987). Concepts of Modern Physics (4th ed.). McGraw-Hill (International).  
  • L.H. Greenberg (1978). Physics with Modern Applications. Holt-Saunders International W.B. Saunders and Co.  
  • R.G. Lerner, G.L. Trigg (2005). Encyclopaedia of Physics (2nd ed.). VHC Publishers, Hans Warlimont, Springer. pp. 12–13.  
  • J.B. Marion, W.F. Hornyak (1984). Principles of Physics. Holt-Saunders International Saunders College.  
  • H.J. Pain (1983). The Physics of Vibrations and Waves (3rd ed.). John Wiley & Sons,.  
  • C.B. Parker (1994). McGraw Hill Encyclopaedia of Physics (2nd ed.). McGraw Hill.  
  • R. Penrose (2007).  
  • P.A. Tipler, G. Mosca (2008). Physics for Scientists and Engineers: With Modern Physics (6th ed.). W.H. Freeman and Co.  
  • P.M. Whelan, M.J. Hodgeson (1978). Essential Principles of Physics (2nd ed.). John Murray.  

External links

  • Oppelt, Arnulf (2006-11-02). "magnetic field strength". Retrieved 2007-06-04. 
  • "magnetic field strength converter". Retrieved 2007-06-04. 
  • Electromagnetic Force - from Eric Weisstein's World of Physics
  • Goudarzi, Sara (2006-08-15). "Ties That Bind Atoms Weaker Than Thought". LiveScience.com. Retrieved 2013-11-12. 
  • Quarked Electromagnetic force - A good introduction for kids
  • The Deflection of a Magnetic Compass Needle by a Current in a Wire (video) on YouTube
  • Electromagnetism abridged