Could someone explain what potential really is? I have read about it in many books and on many sites but no one really explains what it represents and how it really works? I know the formulas about it, that it falls with distance and all that stuff, I'm not interessted in that stuff, I'm interested what is it really, how to simply explain it to someone who doesn't know anything about it?

Edit: I'm not asking about potential energy, I'm asking about potential. Those two are not the same, answers in What is potential energy truly? all adress potential energy not potential.

  • $\begingroup$ You should be much more precise, what you don't understand and what is difficult for you. $\endgroup$
    – Semoi
    Sep 24, 2017 at 16:15
  • $\begingroup$ @Semoi As I said I understand it, but I don't know how to explain it simply to someone, that's why I asked for a simple explanation of potential $\endgroup$
    – Plexus
    Sep 24, 2017 at 17:13
  • $\begingroup$ It's often said that (and attributed to a variety of famous scientists) "if you can't explain it to a layman, you didn't really understand it". :-) $\endgroup$
    – stafusa
    Sep 24, 2017 at 19:54
  • $\begingroup$ The potential is a function which shows the energy as the function of the position. $\endgroup$
    – peterh
    Sep 25, 2017 at 2:32
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Yes, @Steeven, I searched a bit too, but since Feynman (who I originally wanted to cite) should also have said something in those lines, I chose not to mention either. :) $\endgroup$
    – stafusa
    Sep 25, 2017 at 7:52

2 Answers 2


Put a ball on a shelf. Now there is stored gravitational potential energy.

Divide this gravitational potential energy with the ball's mass. You now have a measure of gravitational potential energy per mass. Let's simply call it gravitational potential.

Now, replace "gravitational" with "electrical". And instead of making a "per mass" measure, let's divide with the charge and make a "per charge" measure.


  • the potential energy of a system (gravitational, electrical, elastic, magnetic, chemical...) is the energy associated with the arrangement of the system, while
  • the potential of a system (gravitational, electrical, elastic, magnetic, chemical...) is the energy associated with the arrangement of the system per unit (unit mass, charge, elongation...).

Potentials are handier than potential energies when you need close comparison between arrangements. It is often very useful to know the energy per charge for a point in an electric circuit, rather than the total energy for that point.


Potential energy is a way that we see and detect energy.

When you first start learning about energy, it means anything that's moving has kinetic energy. In electricity and magnetism, matter has electric and magnetic fields which use energy to push and pull in their interactions. In thermodynamics, energy is expressed by the motion of moving particles, which we refer to as temperature, which is most often expressed as entropy (because entropy is fascinating - other scientific fields use Helmholtz free energy or Gibbs Free energy, but they're closely related).

Energy is an important property of nature because it is conserved. We can go very far when we find things in nature that are equal. If you shoot one pool ball into another and you want to know where the targeted ball will go. In order to answer this, you need to know what is the same before and after the interaction. It's interesting--not much is the same after the interaction. The direction the initial ball was going does not need to be the same, the speed the ball was going does not need to be the same, but we find that the total energy of the two pool balls is the same over time. This is a quantity that is conserved over time, and we call it energy. Because it is conserved over time, we can predict the future.

The way I informally see potential energy is energy that is not interacting with anything but could. If potential energy does interact with something, we call the interaction a different name than potential energy, such as kinetic energy or force.


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