The rule of omitting the self-field in calculations—and whether potentials have an objective existence or not

There was an issue concerning the strictly classical, non-relativistic electricity which I was (once again) confronted with, during my continuing preoccupation with quantum mechanics.

Actually, a small part of this issue had occurred to me earlier too, and I had worked through it back then.

However, the overall issue had never occurred to me with as much of scope, generality and force as it did last evening. And I could not immediately resolve it. So, for a while, especially last night, I unexpectedly found myself to have become very confused, even discouraged.

Then, this morning, after a good night’s rest, everything became clear right while sipping my morning cup of tea. Things came together literally within a span of just a few minutes. I want to share the issue and its resolution with you.

The question in question (!) is the following.


Consider 2 (or N) number of point-charges, say electrons. Each electron sets up an electrostatic (Coulombic) potential everywhere in space, for the other electrons to “feel”.

As you know, the potential set up by the i-th electron is:
V_i(\vec{r}_i, \vec{r}) = \dfrac{1}{4 \pi \epsilon_0} \dfrac{Q_i}{|\vec{r} - \vec{r}_i|}
where \vec{r}_i is the position vector of the i-th electron, \vec{r} is any arbitrary point in space, and Q_i is the charge of the i-th electron.

The potential energy associated with some other (j-th) electron being at the position \vec{r}_j (i.e. the energy that the system acquires in bringing the two electrons from \infty to their respective positions some finite distance apart), is then given as:
U_{ij}(\vec{r}_i, \vec{r}_j) = \dfrac{1}{4 \pi \epsilon_0} \dfrac{Q_i\,Q_j}{|\vec{r}_j - \vec{r}_i|}

The notation followed here is the following: In U_{ij}, the potential field is produced by the i-th electron, and the work is done by the j-th electron against the i-th electron.

Symmetrically, the potential energy for this configuration can also be expressed as:
U_{ji}(\vec{r}_j, \vec{r}_i) = \dfrac{1}{4 \pi \epsilon_0} \dfrac{Q_j\,Q_i}{|\vec{r}_i - \vec{r}_j|}

If a system has only two charges, then its total potential energy U can be expressed either as U_{ji} or as U_{ij}. Thus,
U = U_{ji} = U_{ij}

Similarly, for any pair of charges in an N-particle system, too. Therefore, the total energy of an N-particle system is given as:
U = \sum\limits_{i}^{N} \sum\limits_{j = i+1}^{N} U_{ij}

The issue now is this: Can we say that the total potential energy U has an objective existence in the physical world? Or is it just a device of calculations that we have invented, just a concept from maths that has no meaningful physical counterpart?

(A side remark: Energy may perhaps exist as an attribute or property of something else, and not necessarily as a separate physical object by itself. However, existence as an attribute still is an objective existence.)

The reason to raise this doubt is the following.


When calculating the motion of the i-th charge, we consider only the potentials V_j produced by the other charges, not the potential produced by the given charge V_i itself.

Now, if the potential produced by the given charge (V_i) also exists at every point in space, then why does it not enter the calculations? How does its physical efficacy get evaporated away? And, symmetrically: The motion of the j-th charge occurs as if V_j had physically evaporated away.

The issue generalizes in a straight-forward manner. If there are N number of charges, then for calculating the motion of a given i-th charge, the potential fields of all other charges are considered operative. But not its own field.

How can motion become sensitive to only a part of the total potential energy existing at a point even if the other part also exists at the same point? That is the question.


This circumstance seems to indicate as if there is subjectivity built deep into the very fabric of classical mechanics. It is as if the universe just knows what a subject is going to calculate, and accordingly, it just makes the corresponding field mystically go away. The universe—the physical universe—acts as if it were changing in response to what we choose to do in our mind. Mind you, the universe seems to change in response to not just our observations (as in QM), but even as we merely proceed to do calculations. How does that come to happen?… May be the whole physical universe exists only in our imagination?

Got the point?


No, my confusion was not as pathetic as that in the previous paragraph. But I still found myself being confused about how to account for the fact that an electron’s own field does not enter the calculations.

But it was not all. A non-clarity on this issue also meant that there was another confusing issue which also raised its head. This secondary issue arises out of the fact that the Coulombic potential set up by any point-charge is singular in nature (or at least approximately so).

If the electron is a point-particle and if its own potential “is” \infty at its position, then why does it at all get influenced by the finite potential of any other charge? That is the question.

Notice, the second issue is most acute when the potentials in question are singular in nature. But even if you arbitrarily remove the singularity by declaring (say by fiat) a finite size for the electron, thereby making its own field only finitely large (and not infinite), the above-mentioned issue still remains. So long as its own field is finite but much, much larger than the potential of any other charge, the effects due to the other charges should become comparatively less significant, perhaps even negligibly small. Why does this not happen? Why does the rule instead go exactly the other way around, and makes those much smaller effects due to other charges count, but not the self-field of the very electron in question?


While thinking about QM, there was a certain point where this entire gamut of issues became important—whether the potential has an objective existence or not, the rule of omitting the self-field while calculating motions of particles, the singular potential, etc.

The specific issue I was trying to think through was: two interacting particles (e.g. the two electrons in the helium atom). It was while thinking on this problem that this problem occurred to me. And then, it also led me to wonder: what if some intellectual goon in the guise of a physicist comes along, and says that my proposal isn’t valid because there is this element of subjectivity to it? This thought occurred to me with all its force only last night. (Or so I think.) And I could not recall seeing a ready-made answer in a text-book or so. Nor could I figure it out immediately, at night, after a whole day’s work. And as I failed to resolve the anticipated objection, I progressively got more and more confused last night, even discouraged.

However, this morning, it all got resolved in a jiffy.


Would you like to give it a try? Why is it that while calculating the motion of the i-th charge, you consider the potentials set up by all the rest of the charges, but not its own potential field? Why this rule? Get this part right, and all the philosophical humbug mentioned earlier just evaporates away too.

I would wait for a couple of days or so before coming back and providing you with the answer I found. May be I will write another post about it.


Update on 2019.03.16 20:14 IST: Corrected the statement concerning the total energy of a two-electron system. Also simplified the further discussion by couching it preferably in terms of potentials rather than energies (as in the first published version), because a Coulombic potential always remains anchored in the given charge—it doesn’t additionally depend on the other charges the way energy does. Modified the notation to reflect the emphasis on the potentials rather than energy.


A song I like:

[What else? [… see the songs section in the last post.]]
(Hindi) “woh dil kahaan se laaoon…”
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Music: Ravi
Lyrics: Rajinder Kishen


A bit of a conjecture as to why Ravi’s songs tend to be so hummable, of a certain simplicity, especially, almost always based on a very simple rhythm. My conjecture is that because Ravi grew up in an atmosphere of “bhajan”-singing.

Observe that it is in the very nature of music that it puts your mind into an abstract frame of mind. Observe any singer, especially the non-professional ones (or the ones who are not very highly experienced in controlling their body-language while singing, as happens to singers who participate in college events or talent shows).

When they sing, their eyes seem to roll in a very peculiar manner. It seems random but it isn’t. It’s as if the eyes involuntarily get set in the motions of searching for something definite to be found somewhere, as if the thing to be found would be in the concrete physical space outside, but within a split-second, the eyes again move as if the person has realized that nothing corresponding is to be found in the world out there. That’s why the eyes “roll away.” The same thing goes on repeating, as the singer passes over various words, points of pauses, nuances, or musical phrases.

The involuntary motions of the eyes of the singer provide a window into his experience of music. It’s as if his consciousness was again and again going on registering a sequence of two very fleeting experiences: (i) a search for something in the outside world corresponding to an inner experience felt in the present, and immediately later, (ii) a realization (and therefore the turning away of the eyes from an initially picked up tentative direction) that nothing in the outside world would match what was being searched for.

The experience of music necessarily makes you realize the abstractness of itself. It tends to make you realize that the root-referents of your musical experience lie not in a specific object or phenomenon in the physical world, but in the inner realm, that of your own emotions, judgments, self-reflections, etc.

This nature of music makes it ideally suited to let you turn your attention away from the outside world, and has the capacity or potential to induce a kind of a quiet self-reflection in you.

But the switch from the experience of frustrated searches into the outside world to a quiet self-reflection within oneself is not the only option available here. Music can also induce in you a transitioning from those unfulfilled searches to a frantic kind of an activity: screams, frantic shouting, random gyrations, and what not. In evidence, observe any piece of modern American / Western pop-music.

However, when done right, music can also induce a state of self-reflection, and by evoking certain kind of emotions, it can even lead to a sense of orderliness, peace, serenity. To make this part effective, such a music has to be simple enough, and orderly enough. That’s why devotional music in the refined cultural traditions is, as a rule, of a certain kind of simplicity.

The experience of music isn’t the highest possible spiritual experience. But if done right, it can make your transition from the ordinary experience to a deep, profound spiritual experience easy. And doing it right involves certain orderliness, simplicity in all respects: tune, tone, singing style, rhythm, instrumental sections, transitions between phrases, etc.

If you grow up listening to this kind of a music, your own music in your adult years tends to reflect the same qualities. The simplicity of rhythm. The alluringly simple tunes. The “hummability quotient.” (You don’t want to focus on intricate patterns of melody in devotional music; you want it to be so simple that minimal mental exertion is involved in rendering it, so that your mental energy can quietly transition towards your spiritual quest and experiences.) Etc.

I am not saying that the reason Ravi’s music is so great is because he listened his father sing “bhajan”s. If this were true, there would be tens of thousands of music composers having talents comparable to Ravi’s. But the fact is that Ravi was a genius—a self-taught genius, in fact. (He never received any formal training in music ever.) But what I am saying is that if you do have the musical ability, having this kind of a family environment would leave its mark. Definitely.

Of course, this all was just a conjecture. Check it out and see if it holds or not.

… May be I should convert this “note” in a separate post by itself. Would be easier to keep track of it. … Some other time. … I have to work on QM; after all, exactly only half the month remains now. … Bye for now. …


Advertisements