# Why is an electron negatively charged, and what is the difference between negative and positive charges?

Nobody has yet defined the actual meaning of a charge, or why a negative charge is different from a positive charge.

1. Everybody knows that positive charge is due to protons and negative charge is due to electrons, but what does the charge mean?

2. Why were negative and positive charges so designated?

3. Was it also a possibility to call the charge of an electron positive and the charge of a proton negative?

• "Charge" is a property of objects. The total amount of charge and the charge distribution of an object determine its behavior in electromagnetic fields. "positive" and "negative" are (historical) conventions, just like "rose" and "tulip". If we would swap these terms, we could still tell the charges (and the flowers) apart. In that sense there is no absolute meaning to either. The much more important fact is that there are two different polarities of charges which exist in equal numbers. Oct 19, 2014 at 19:27
• WHY questions in physics on fundamental definitions end up on the postulates and laws which have to be assumed so that a mathematical model fits existing data and predicts new observations. The postulates and laws have been chosen for the mathematical model as extra axioms BECAUSE they constrain the mathematics to observations and correct predictions. One of the implicit postulates from data is the existence of two opposite charges, and the sign is an arbitrary convention. May 6, 2016 at 4:19
• Related: physics.stackexchange.com/q/17109/2451 and links therein. May 6, 2016 at 9:14
• With regards to question 2, it's purely because Benjamin Franklin made an arbitrary decision as to which one to call "negative" versus "positive" based on inadequate information (electrons and protons hadn't been discovered yet). It would probably have made electronics and physics slightly simpler and more intuitive if he had made the opposite choice, resulting electrons being called "positive" and protons "negative". A relevant cartoon: xkcd.com/567 May 2, 2020 at 1:38

In quantum theory of elementary particles (in a sense of irreducible representation of Poincare group with mass $m$ and spin (helicity) $s$) if some operator $\hat{Q}$ of internal symmetry commutes (like electric charge charge) with Hamiltonian $\hat{H}$ of given field theory, there must be $$[\hat{Q},\hat{\varphi}^{\dagger}_{A}(\mathbf p)] | \rangle = q_{A}\hat{\varphi}^{\dagger}_{A}(\mathbf p), \quad [\hat{Q},\hat{\varphi}_{A}(\mathbf p)] | \rangle = -q_{A}\hat{\varphi}_{A}(\mathbf p).$$ Here $\hat{\varphi}^{\dagger}(x)$ is a field which creates particles while $\hat{\varphi}(x)$ is a field which creates antiparticles.

So you can see two facts: the particle has charge which is equal to the charge of corresponding antiparticle with minus sign; the setting of sign of particle's charge is formal. We can set the positron charge as negative, the physics doesn't change.

Charge is only the measure of interaction. Let's see this on the simple example.

We know that there is interaction between two electrons which can't be described as gravitational (they are repelled). Also we know that proton and electron are attracted (this interaction also can't be described as gravitational because it's stronger than it). Then we know that this interaction force at the simplest case coinsides with $\frac{1}{r^{2}}$ law, and the measure of interaction is constant in time. We need to build the theory with these properties. The charge of given particle, as (for simplicity) the mass in case of gravitational interaction, says us about its taking part in interaction.

• I asked a similar question some months ago hoping for some insight. It seems that we don't have the "gravity-is-the-bending-of-space-time" explanation for charge yet. We can describe the What but not the Why. Great overall question! Oct 20, 2014 at 3:01
• Your first paragraph could frighten some readers, but the others are really good. +1 Oct 22, 2014 at 22:08
• @Shookster The theory of general relativity is an exception in its appearance, as it appeared long before there were any data to confirm its predictions. WHY questions in physics on fundamental definitions end up on the postulates and laws which have to be assumed so that a mathematical model fits existing data and predicts new observations. The postulates and laws have been chosen for the mathematical model as extra axioms BECAUSE they constrain the mathematics to observations and correct predictions. One of the implicit postulates from data is the existence of two opposite charges. May 6, 2016 at 4:16

If we re-designate all positive electric charges as negative and vice versa, while keeping their absolute value, the resulting physics would be the same. So exact choice is merely a matter of convention.

It only matters that electric charge of proton and electron are opposite ($Q_\text{proton}=-Q_\text{electron}$). The charge is additive, meaning that if you have one system with charge $Q_1$ and another system with charge $Q_2$, the combined system has the charge $Q_1+Q_2$ (sum of those charges).

Charge of electron is opposite to that of proton so combination of equal number of protons and electrons has total charge zero, i.e. it is electrically neutral. One such combination (up to additional other particles (neutrons)) is the usual (not ionized) atom.

The concept of electric charge is introduced to explain experiments (originally from static electricity). It is found that only two types of charges are necessary and to distinguish them and to distinguish between they are given labels. The most convenient label is positive and negative (that has some mathematical advantages). It is pure convention that protons are assigned a positive charge and electrons are assigned as negative.

It is found that all charges of the same type repel each other, while charges of different types attract each other.

All particles seems to be grouped under two distinct polarities based on the manner of attraction or repulsion. Those particles repelling one another are said to have like charges. Those that attract one another have different charges. Being a positive or negative charge, is a matter of convention already accepted by world scientific community.

A Charge is a property possessed by a body when there is internal imbalance of number of particles carrying different polarities based on attraction or repulsion.