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Assignment of numbers to points in space
A scalar field such as temperature or pressure, where intensity of the field is represented by different hues of colors.
In mathematics and physics, a scalar field associates a scalar value to every point in a space - possibly physical space. The scalar may either be a (dimensionless) mathematical number or a physical quantity. In a physical context, scalar fields are required to be independent of the choice of reference frame, meaning that any two observers using the same units will agree on the value of the scalar field at the same absolute point in space (or spacetime) regardless of their respective points of origin. Examples used in physics include the temperature distribution throughout space, the pressure distribution in a fluid, and spin-zero quantum fields, such as the Higgs field. These fields are the subject of scalar field theory.
The scalar field of oscillating as increases. Red represents positive values, purple represents negative values, and sky blue represents values close to zero.
Physically, a scalar field is additionally distinguished by having units of measurement associated with it. In this context, a scalar field should also be independent of the coordinate system used to describe the physical system--that is, any two observers using the same units must agree on the numerical value of a scalar field at any given point of physical space. Scalar fields are contrasted with other physical quantities such as vector fields, which associate a vector to every point of a region, as well as tensor fields and spinor fields. More subtly, scalar fields are often contrasted with pseudoscalar fields.
Uses in physics
In physics, scalar fields often describe the potential energy associated with a particular force. The force is a vector field, which can be obtained as a factor of the gradient of the potential energy scalar field. Examples include:
Scalar fields like the Higgs field can be found within scalar-tensor theories, using as scalar field the Higgs field of the Standard Model. This field interacts gravitationally and Yukawa-like (short-ranged) with the particles that get mass through it.
Scalar fields are found within superstring theories as dilaton fields, breaking the conformal symmetry of the string, though balancing the quantum anomalies of this tensor.
Scalar fields are hypothesized to have caused the high accelerated expansion of the early universe (inflation), helping to solve the horizon problem and giving a hypothetical reason for the non-vanishing cosmological constant of cosmology. Massless (i.e. long-ranged) scalar fields in this context are known as inflatons. Massive (i.e. short-ranged) scalar fields are proposed, too, using for example Higgs-like fields.