You may wonder why the notion of electric field has been introduced here at all. After all, for any system of charges, the measurable quantity is the force on a charge which can be directly determined using Coulomb’s law and the superposition principle [Eq. (1.5)]. Why then introduce this intermediate quantity called the electric field?

For electrostatics, the concept of electric field is convenient, but not really necessary. Electric field is an elegant way of characterising the electrical environment of a system of charges. Electric field at a point in the space around a system of charges tells you the force a unit positive test charge would experience if placed at that point (without disturbing the system). Electric field is a characteristic of the system of charges and is independent of the test charge that you place at a point to determine the field. The term field in physics generally refers to a quantity that is defined at every point in space and may vary from point to point. Electric field is a vector field, since force is a vector quantity.

The true physical significance of the concept of electric field, however, emerges only when we go beyond electrostatics and deal with time dependent  electromagnetic phenomena. Suppose we consider the force between two distant charges q1, q2 in accelerated motion. Now the greatest speed with which a signal or information can go from one point to another is c, the speed of light. Thus, the effect of any motion of q1 on q2 cannot arise instantaneously. There will be some time delay between the effect (force on q2) and the cause (motion of q1). It is precisely here that the notion of electric field (strictly, electromagnetic field) is natural and very useful. The field picture is this: the accelerated motion of charge q1 produces electromagnetic waves, which then propagate with the speed c, reach q2 and cause a force on q2. The notion of field elegantly accounts for the time delay. Thus, even though electric and magnetic fields can be detected only by their effects (forces) on charges, they are regarded as physical entities, not merely mathematical constructs. They have an independent dynamics of their own, i.e., they evolve according to laws of their own. They can also transport energy. Thus, a source of timedependent electromagnetic fields, turned on for a short interval of time and then switched off, leaves behind propagating electromagnetic fields transporting energy. The concept of field was first introduced by Faraday and is now among the central concepts in physics.

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