Gauss's law

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In physics, Gauss's law, also known as Gauss's flux theorem, is a law relating the distribution of electric charge to the resulting electric field. The surface under consideration may be a closed one enclosing a volume such as a spherical surface.

Physics study of matter and its motion, along with related concepts such as energy and force

Physics is the natural science that studies matter and its motion and behavior through space and time and that studies the related entities of energy and force. Physics is one of the most fundamental scientific disciplines, and its main goal is to understand how the universe behaves.

Electric charge physical property that quantifies an objects interaction with electric fields

Electric charge is the physical property of matter that causes it to experience a force when placed in an electromagnetic field. There are two types of electric charges; positive and negative. Like charges repel and unlike attract. An object with an absence of net charge is referred to as neutral. Early knowledge of how charged substances interact is now called classical electrodynamics, and is still accurate for problems that do not require consideration of quantum effects.

Electric field spatial distribution of vectors representing the force applied to a charged test particle

An electric field is a vector field surrounding an electric charge that exerts force on other charges, attracting or repelling them. Mathematically the electric field is a vector field that associates to each point in space the force, called the Coulomb force, that would be experienced per unit of charge by an infinitesimal test charge at that point. The units of the electric field in the SI system are newtons per coulomb (N/C), or volts per meter (V/m). Electric fields are created by electric charges, or by time-varying magnetic fields. Electric fields are important in many areas of physics, and are exploited practically in electrical technology. On an atomic scale, the electric field is responsible for the attractive force between the atomic nucleus and electrons that holds atoms together, and the forces between atoms that cause chemical bonding. Electric fields and magnetic fields are both manifestations of the electromagnetic force, one of the four fundamental forces of nature.


The law was first [1] formulated by Joseph-Louis Lagrange in 1773, [2] followed by Carl Friedrich Gauss in 1813, [3] both in the context of the attraction of ellipsoids. It is one of Maxwell's four equations, which form the basis of classical electrodynamics. [note 1] Gauss's law can be used to derive Coulomb's law, [4] and vice versa.

Joseph-Louis Lagrange Italian mathematician and mathematical physicist

Joseph-Louis Lagrange was an Italian Enlightenment Era mathematician and astronomer. He made significant contributions to the fields of analysis, number theory, and both classical and celestial mechanics.

Carl Friedrich Gauss German mathematician and physicist

Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss (; German: Gauß[ˈkaɐ̯l ˈfʁiːdʁɪç ˈɡaʊs]; Latin: Carolus Fridericus Gauss; was a German mathematician and physicist who made significant contributions to many fields in mathematics and sciences. Sometimes referred to as the Princeps mathematicorum and "the greatest mathematician since antiquity", Gauss had an exceptional influence in many fields of mathematics and science, and is ranked among history's most influential mathematicians.

Maxwells equations set of partial differential equations that describe how electric and magnetic fields are generated and altered by each other and by charges and currents

Maxwell's equations are a set of partial differential equations that, together with the Lorentz force law, form the foundation of classical electromagnetism, classical optics, and electric circuits. The equations provide a mathematical model for electric, optical, and radio technologies, such as power generation, electric motors, wireless communication, lenses, radar etc. Maxwell's equations describe how electric and magnetic fields are generated by charges, currents, and changes of the fields. One important consequence of the equations is that they demonstrate how fluctuating electric and magnetic fields propagate at the speed of light. Known as electromagnetic radiation, these waves may occur at various wavelengths to produce a spectrum from radio waves to γ-rays. The equations are named after the physicist and mathematician James Clerk Maxwell, who between 1861 and 1862 published an early form of the equations that included the Lorentz force law. He also first used the equations to propose that light is an electromagnetic phenomenon.

Qualitative description

In words, Gauss's law states that

The net electric flux through any hypothetical closed surface is equal to times the net electric charge within that closed surface. [5]

Electric flux number of electric field lines through a certain surface

In electromagnetism, electric flux is the measure of the distribution of the electric field through a given surface, although an electric field in itself cannot flow. It is a way of describing the electric field strength at any distance from the charge causing the field.

Gauss's law has a close mathematical similarity with a number of laws in other areas of physics, such as Gauss's law for magnetism and Gauss's law for gravity. In fact, any inverse-square law can be formulated in a way similar to Gauss's law: for example, Gauss's law itself is essentially equivalent to the inverse-square Coulomb's law, and Gauss's law for gravity is essentially equivalent to the inverse-square Newton's law of gravity.

Gausss law for magnetism Foundational law of classical magnetism

In physics, Gauss's law for magnetism is one of the four Maxwell's equations that underlie classical electrodynamics. It states that the magnetic field B has divergence equal to zero, in other words, that it is a solenoidal vector field. It is equivalent to the statement that magnetic monopoles do not exist. Rather than "magnetic charges", the basic entity for magnetism is the magnetic dipole.

In physics, Gauss's law for gravity, also known as Gauss's flux theorem for gravity, is a law of physics that is essentially equivalent to Newton's law of universal gravitation. It is named after Carl Friedrich Gauss. Although Gauss's law for gravity is equivalent to Newton's law, there are many situations where Gauss's law for gravity offers a more convenient and simple way to do a calculation than Newton's law.

Inverse-square law physical law

The inverse-square law, in physics, is any physical law stating that a specified physical quantity or intensity is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from the source of that physical quantity. The fundamental cause for this can be understood as geometric dilution corresponding to point-source radiation into three-dimensional space.

The law can be expressed mathematically using vector calculus in integral form and differential form; both are equivalent since they are related by the divergence theorem, also called Gauss's theorem. Each of these forms in turn can also be expressed two ways: In terms of a relation between the electric field E and the total electric charge, or in terms of the electric displacement field D and the free electric charge. [6]

Vector calculus, or vector analysis, is a branch of mathematics concerned with differentiation and integration of vector fields, primarily in 3-dimensional Euclidean space The term "vector calculus" is sometimes used as a synonym for the broader subject of multivariable calculus, which includes vector calculus as well as partial differentiation and multiple integration. Vector calculus plays an important role in differential geometry and in the study of partial differential equations. It is used extensively in many disciplines, such as physics, engineering, and machine learning. Example applications include electromagnetic fields, gravitational fields, fluid flow, and backpropagation.

Differential calculus subfield of calculus

In mathematics, differential calculus is a subfield of calculus concerned with the study of the rates at which quantities change. It is one of the two traditional divisions of calculus, the other being integral calculus, the study of the area beneath a curve.

In vector calculus, the divergence theorem, also known as Gauss's theorem or Ostrogradsky's theorem, is a result that relates the flow of a vector field through a surface to the behavior of the tensor field inside the surface.

Equation involving the E field

Gauss's law can be stated using either the electric field E or the electric displacement field D. This section shows some of the forms with E; the form with D is below, as are other forms with E.

In physics, the electric displacement field, denoted by D, is a vector field that appears in Maxwell's equations. It accounts for the effects of free and bound charge within materials. "D" stands for "displacement", as in the related concept of displacement current in dielectrics. In free space, the electric displacement field is equivalent to flux density, a concept that lends understanding to Gauss's law. In SI, it is expressed in units of coulomb per metre squared (C⋅m−2).

Integral form

Gauss's law may be expressed as: [6]

where ΦE is the electric flux through a closed surface S enclosing any volume V, Q is the total charge enclosed within V, and ε0 is the electric constant. The electric flux ΦE is defined as a surface integral of the electric field:


where E is the electric field, dA is a vector representing an infinitesimal element of area of the surface, [note 2] and · represents the dot product of two vectors.

Since the flux is defined as an integral of the electric field, this expression of Gauss's law is called the integral form.

Applying the integral form

If the electric field is known everywhere, Gauss's law makes it possible to find the distribution of electric charge: The charge in any given region can be deduced by integrating the electric field to find the flux.

The reverse problem (when the electric charge distribution is known and the electric field must be computed) is much more difficult. The total flux through a given surface gives little information about the electric field, and can go in and out of the surface in arbitrarily complicated patterns.

An exception is if there is some symmetry in the problem, which mandates that the electric field passes through the surface in a uniform way. Then, if the total flux is known, the field itself can be deduced at every point. Common examples of symmetries which lend themselves to Gauss's law include: cylindrical symmetry, planar symmetry, and spherical symmetry. See the article Gaussian surface for examples where these symmetries are exploited to compute electric fields.

Differential form

By the divergence theorem, Gauss's law can alternatively be written in the differential form:

where ∇ · E is the divergence of the electric field, ε0 is the electric constant, and ρ is the total electric charge density (charge per unit volume).

Equivalence of integral and differential forms

The integral and differential forms are mathematically equivalent, by the divergence theorem. Here is the argument more specifically.

Equation involving the D field

Free, bound, and total charge

The electric charge that arises in the simplest textbook situations would be classified as "free charge"—for example, the charge which is transferred in static electricity, or the charge on a capacitor plate. In contrast, "bound charge" arises only in the context of dielectric (polarizable) materials. (All materials are polarizable to some extent.) When such materials are placed in an external electric field, the electrons remain bound to their respective atoms, but shift a microscopic distance in response to the field, so that they're more on one side of the atom than the other. All these microscopic displacements add up to give a macroscopic net charge distribution, and this constitutes the "bound charge".

Although microscopically all charge is fundamentally the same, there are often practical reasons for wanting to treat bound charge differently from free charge. The result is that the more fundamental Gauss's law, in terms of E (above), is sometimes put into the equivalent form below, which is in terms of D and the free charge only.

Integral form

This formulation of Gauss's law states the total charge form:

where ΦD is the D-field flux through a surface S which encloses a volume V, and Qfree is the free charge contained in V. The flux ΦD is defined analogously to the flux ΦE of the electric field E through S:


Differential form

The differential form of Gauss's law, involving free charge only, states:

where ∇ · D is the divergence of the electric displacement field, and ρfree is the free electric charge density.

Equivalence of total and free charge statements

Equation for linear materials

In homogeneous, isotropic, nondispersive, linear materials, there is a simple relationship between E and D:

where ε is the permittivity of the material. For the case of vacuum (aka free space), ε = ε0. Under these circumstances, Gauss's law modifies to

for the integral form, and

for the differential form.


In terms of fields of force

Gauss's theorem can be interpreted in terms of the lines of force of the field as follows:

The flux through a closed surface is dependent upon both the magnitude and direction of the electric field lines penetrating the surface. In general a positive flux is defined by these lines leaving the surface and negative flux by lines entering this surface. This results in positive charges causing a positive flux and negative charges creating a negative flux. These electric field lines will extend to infinite decreasing in strength by a factor of one over the distance form the source of the charge squared. The larger the number of field lines emanating from a charge the larger the magnitude of the charge is, and the closer together the field lines are the greater the magnitude of the electric filed. This has the natural result of the electric field becoming weaker as one moves away from a charged particle, but the surface area also increases so that the net electric field exiting this particle will stay the same. In other words the closed integral of the electric field and the dot product of the derivative of the area will equal the net charge enclosed divided by permittivity of free space.

Relation to Coulomb's law

Deriving Gauss's law from Coulomb's law

Strictly speaking, Gauss's law cannot be derived from Coulomb's law alone, since Coulomb's law gives the electric field due to an individual point charge only. However, Gauss's law can be proven from Coulomb's law if it is assumed, in addition, that the electric field obeys the superposition principle. The superposition principle says that the resulting field is the vector sum of fields generated by each particle (or the integral, if the charges are distributed smoothly in space).

Note that since Coulomb's law only applies to stationary charges, there is no reason to expect Gauss's law to hold for moving charges based on this derivation alone. In fact, Gauss's law does hold for moving charges, and in this respect Gauss's law is more general than Coulomb's law.

Deriving Coulomb's law from Gauss's law

Strictly speaking, Coulomb's law cannot be derived from Gauss's law alone, since Gauss's law does not give any information regarding the curl of E (see Helmholtz decomposition and Faraday's law). However, Coulomb's law can be proven from Gauss's law if it is assumed, in addition, that the electric field from a point charge is spherically symmetric (this assumption, like Coulomb's law itself, is exactly true if the charge is stationary, and approximately true if the charge is in motion).

See also


  1. The other three of Maxwell's equations are: Gauss' law for magnetism, Faraday's law of induction, and "Ampère"'s law with Maxwell's correction
  2. More specifically, the infinitesimal area is thought of as planar and with area dA. The vector dA is normal to this area element and has magnitude dA. [7]


  1. Duhem, Pierre. Leçons sur l'électricité et le magnétisme (in French). vol. 1, ch. 4, p. 22–23. shows that Lagrange has priority over Gauss. Others after Gauss discovered "Gauss' Law", too.
  2. Lagrange, Joseph-Louis (1773). "Sur l'attraction des sphéroïdes elliptiques". Mémoires de l'Académie de Berlin (in French): 125.
  3. Gauss, Carl Friedrich. Theoria attractionis corporum sphaeroidicorum ellipticorum homogeneorum methodo nova tractata (in Latin). (Gauss, Werke, vol. V, p. 1). Gauss mentions Newton's Principia proposition XCI regarding finding the force exerted by a sphere on a point anywhere along an axis passing through the sphere.
  4. Halliday, David; Resnick, Robert (1970). Fundamentals of Physics. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 452–453.
  5. Serway, Raymond A. (1996). Physics for Scientists and Engineers with Modern Physics (4th ed.). p. 687.
  6. 1 2 Grant, I. S.; Phillips, W. R. (2008). Electromagnetism. Manchester Physics (2nd ed.). John Wiley & Sons. ISBN   978-0-471-92712-9.
  7. Matthews, Paul (1998). Vector Calculus. Springer. ISBN   3-540-76180-2.
  8. See, for example, Griffiths, David J. (2013). Introduction to Electrodynamics (4th ed.). Prentice Hall. p. 50.

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