field, in physics, region throughout which a force may be exerted; examples are the gravitational, electric, and magnetic fields that surround, respectively, masses, electric charges, and magnets. The field concept was developed by M. Faraday based on his investigation of the lines of force that appear to leave and return to a magnet at its poles (see flux, magnetic). Fields are used to describe all cases where two bodies separated in space exert a force on each other. The alternative to postulating a field is to assume that physical influences can be transmitted through empty space without any material or physical agency. Such action-at-a-distance, especially if it occurs instantaneously, violates both common sense and certain modern theories, notably relativity, which posits that nothing can travel faster than light. In a field description, rather than body A directly exerting a force on body B, body A (the source) creates a field in every direction around it and body B (the detector) experiences the field that exists at its position. If a change occurs at the source, its effect propagates outward through the field at a constant speed and is felt at the detector only after a certain delay in time. The field is thus a kind of "middleman" for transmitting forces. Each type of force (electric, magnetic, nuclear, or gravitational) has its own appropriate field; a body experiences the force due to a given field only if the body itself it also a source of that kind of field. The reciprocity implied by Newton's third law of motion (equal action and reaction) is thus preserved. If two bodies exert a mutual force, they possess potential energy that depends on their relative positions; it is natural to regard this energy as residing in the field the bodies create.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.