Equilibrium charge distribution on a finite straight one-dimensional wire

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The electrostatic properties of uniformly charged regular bodies are prominently discussed on college-level electromagnetism courses. However, one of the most basic problems of electrostatics that deals with how a continuous charge distribution reaches equilibrium is rarely mentioned at this level. In this work we revisit the problem of equilibrium charge distribution on a straight one-dimensional (1D) wire with finite length. The majority of existing treatments in the literature deal with the 1D wire as a limiting case of a higher-dimensional structure that can be treated analytically for a Coulomb interaction potential between point charges. Surprisingly, different models (for instance, an ellipsoid or a cylinder model) may lead to different results, thus there is even some ambiguity on whether the problem is well-posed. In this work we adopt a different approach where we do not start with any higher-dimensional body that reduces to a 1D wire in the appropriate limit. Instead, our starting point is the obvious one, a finite straight 1D wire that contains charge. However, the new tweak in the model is the assumption that point charges interact with each other via a non-Coulomb power-law interaction potential. This potential is well-behaved, allows exact analytical results and approaches the standard Coulomb interaction potential as a limit. The results originating from this approach suggest that the equilibrium charge distribution for a finite straight 1D wire is a uniform charge density when the power-law interaction potential approaches the Coulomb interaction potential as a suitable limit. We contrast such a finding to results obtained using a different regularised logarithmic interaction potential which allows exact treatment in 1D. The present self-contained material may be of interest to instructors teaching electromagnetism as well as students who will discover that simple-looking problems may sometimes pose important scientific challenges.

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