You are here

Comments

Why do we do scalar addition and not vector addition here? Is it because when we think of potential, we think of a magnitude of available potential occurring as a sort of pool versus, for example, in electric fields, which have an amount and direction its pushing or pulling a charge with a strength?

Well, scalar addition is used here because we're adding potential energies, and potential energy doesn't have direction. I think it might be helpful to consider what "potential" is, in order to make sense of the fact that it's a scalar. The first thing I always like to remind myself of is that when you hear of "potential", it actually is a lazy way of shortening the more complete term, which is "potential difference". Potential difference is the only thing that can ever be measured. With that said, the next obvious question is "difference" compared to what? In the case of a circuit with a battery, the potential difference is between the positive and negative terminals of the battery. In this question with point charges, the difference is between a point infinitely far away, and the given location of the charge. In other words we have a formula $PE = \dfrac{kq_1q_2}{r}$ that tells us the amount of work an external force (like a hand pushing) would need to do in order to move the charge $q_1$ from infinitely far away to it's given location, which requires work since there's a force of repulsion as a result of $q_2$ (assuming the charges are of the same sign). When there are more charges in addition to $q_2$, as there are on the other two corners of the square in this question, we use the formula a total of 3 times and add the results to find the total. The addition is as scalars since we're adding energies, which don't have direction.

Hope that helps!