Physics Right-Hand Rule: Definition & Practice

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  • 0:01 Physics Right-Hand Rules
  • 1:08 Right Hand Rule #1
  • 2:29 Right Hand Rule #2
  • 3:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Many of the equations and tools used in physics are pretty complex, but not all of them. In this lesson, we will explore physics' right-hand rule and then put it into practice.

Physics Right-Hand Rules

Physics has one simple rule. Right-handed people are awesome. Sorry lefties, but science clearly favors the right-handed. How else could you explain the fact that it's your right hand that is used to determine the direction of a magnetic force? You see, all magnetic fields exert a certain amount of force upon electrically charged particles, called simply the magnetic force. The direction of magnetic force is perpendicular to the direction of the magnetic field, which is also perpendicular to the direction of the electric current, or the flow of the charged particle.

How can three things be perpendicular to each other? Because we live in 3-dimensional space. So, you've got these three forces moving in three directions, and figuring out which is going where is actually as easy as raising your right hand. In physics, the right hand rules are tricks to determine the direction of magnetic force, current, or magnetic field using just your right hand. Sometimes the best tools for physics really are just your hands. Or, at least the right one.

Right Hand Rule #1

Let's look at our first right hand rule. This one is best used to determine the direction of magnetic force, assuming that you know the direction of the current and direction of magnetic field. So, here's how this works. Take your right hand. Point your fingers in the direction of the magnetic field. Now, since the current and magnetic field are perpendicular, make your thumb perpendicular to your fingers. Basically, you should look like you're about to shake someone's hand. Once your fingers and thumb are in place, you've created a flat plane. It's your palm. Now, if you imagine a straight line coming out from your palm perpendicular to the plane you created, that's the direction of magnetic force. For people who aren't great at imagining invisible lines, bend your index finger at the joint to create the perpendicular line coming out from the plane.

See how easy that was? Now, technically, we could calculate the direction of various forces through some pretty complex equations, but most people would agree that it's easier to just hold up your hand. Magnetic forces and electric currents aren't something we can actually see, so this is a great way to visualize the direction of forces, with your fingers representing the direction of the magnetic field, the thumb representing the direction of the current, and the magnetic force extending outwards perpendicular to the palm.

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