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Special issue on electrical charge

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2004 Metrologia 41


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Special issue on electrical charge

George T Gillies This special issue on the physics and metrology of electrical charge attempts to
Jesse W Beams Laboratory provide the interested reader with an overview of the ways in which this
of Physics, University of fundamental property of matter has been studied and measured, both historically
Virginia, Charlottesville, and in present times. Few topics in introductory physics and electrical
VA 22901, USA engineering courses receive as much attention as does the nature and behaviour of
electrical charge, and experimental tests of Coulomb’s law are a staple of such
curricula. The manipulation of electrical charge, even down to the level of single
electrons, constitutes the currency of electrical metrology, while the effects of
parasitic forces arising from spurious charges are the bane of virtually all who
work in the realm of high precision experimentation. Moreover, basic questions
about the equality, discreteness and possible fractional sizes of elementary
charges lie at the foundation of modern physics on the one hand, while the control
of charge carriers within electrical and electronic devices forms the core of
essentially all of modern technology, on the other.
The theme of the special issue is thus one of reviewing the scientific
foundations of charge as a property of matter and as a tool for testing fundamental
physical laws. The historical development of both aspects of this theme during
the last two centuries has helped form the basis for modern electrical metrology.
Therefore, it seemed timely to reassess the field with an eye towards future
developments, especially since we find ourselves at the 250th anniversary of the
period during which Benjamin Franklin carried out some of the first quantitative
electrical measurements, in his colonial laboratory in Pennsylvania.
To that end, the special issue contains articles on several aspects of electrical
charge that have been the focus of intense study during the past several years.
Coulomb’s law is of course central to any discussions in electrical science, and
two of the articles provide detailed descriptions of the experimental foundations
for and the theoretical implications of it. The modern interpretation of possible
deviations from exact inverse-square behaviour in Coulomb’s law invokes a
non-zero rest mass for the photon, and the limits on the sizes of such effects and
the roles that they would play in physical theories are addressed in those articles.
The other papers include a discussion of the state of knowledge regarding the
electrical neutrality of bulk matter and proton/electron charge asymmetries, a
description of a very high precision search for fractional electrical charges, a
comparative overview of the physical analogies between the electromagnetic and
gravitational forces, and a succinct historical study of Coulomb himself and the
law and unit of charge which bear his name.
During the past year, Metrologia has published two other topical issues on
fundamental properties of matter: mass and density. The present special issue
forms a companion document to them. It has been the goal of this special issue to
capture the contemporary flavour of the work being done by physicists who seek
to establish the exactness of the physical laws that serve as foundations for the
further advancement of electrical metrology. Thanks are due to the several
authors who took time to prepare these articles, the referees who reviewed and
commented on them, to Professor Peter Martin and Dr Jeffrey Williams, former
and present Editors of Metrologia, respectively, and to Dr Terry Quinn, Director
Emeritus of the BIPM, for their advice, assistance and central roles in bringing the
special issue to completion.