1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

What is the reason for the square attenuation?

  1. Mar 19, 2013 #1
    I have seen this concept in many places like electrical field, gravitational field, brightness from a distant star or in satellite communication. That is, they seem to be inversely proportional to the square of the distance from the source of that field. What's the reason behind it?
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 19, 2013 #2
    Conservation of energy. When something like sound radiates in all directions and you draw two balls around it - an inner one and an outer one all the sound that passes through the outer ball must have passed through the inner ball before. But the surface area of the balls increases quadratically with radius, so the intensity (the energy per area) must drop as the square of the radius. The law simply states that the energy spreads out and does not get lost.
  4. Mar 19, 2013 #3
    Oh thanks. Simple yet it didn't strike me.
  5. Mar 19, 2013 #4
    The same thinking can clue you in to other geometries. Consider the infinite cylinder. In this case field lines can only diverge in one direction, not in two. So with this geometry we get a 1/r dependence. Consider the infinite sheet. In this case field lines cannot diverge in any direction. Here we get no drop off with distance.
    Last edited: Mar 19, 2013
  6. Mar 19, 2013 #5
    It is known as the inverse square law and is a characteristic of radiation from a point source with no absorption.
    It would not be true for light from a distant star if the light could be absorbed by dust in space.
    It also applies to the force of gravity as distance increases from a planet.
    Last edited: Mar 19, 2013
  7. Mar 19, 2013 #6
    But a sheet is by definition a two dimensional plane. If you have a field starting somewhere in it the field does drop of with distance because a circle of radius 1 has X amount of energy in it but a circle of radius 2X still has the same amount of energy so it has to diminish by the difference of the areas. The area of radius 1 has 3.14 (Pi) units but the area of radius 2 has 12.56 area, 4 times so it goes up by radius squared and so the energy density goes down by the same amount, conservation of energy holds up.
  8. Mar 19, 2013 #7


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member
    2017 Award

    If the Maths is not to your taste, then the image in this link says it all, I think. (About half way down)
  9. Mar 19, 2013 #8
    ModusPnwd is correct. There is no drop off with distance in the case of the infinite sheet.

    Think about it. You can not diminish by the difference in area, because there is no difference in area (always infinite).
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook