I know the definition that scalar fields output numbers (magnitudes) for a particular point in space (in its domain) while vector fields output vectors but I am having a hard time visualizing the difference between them.

I am also having trouble understanding why a scalar cannot have a direction? Isn't the magnitude of scalar e.g a Heat source would continuously increase if I go in radially? why isn't this a direction defining the scalar field?

I need a geometrical interpretation that relates to our physical world objects to develop the understanding cause right now it's all messed up.

There aren't many questions about this on SE and even they don't quite explain the point (generally).

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Might Mathematics be better suited for this math question? $\endgroup$
    – Kyle Kanos
    Aug 3, 2018 at 12:14
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    $\begingroup$ The "intuition" thing is kind of required both for physics (electrodynamics, fluid, etc.) and maths. $\endgroup$
    – paulplusx
    Aug 3, 2018 at 12:18
  • $\begingroup$ Your question isn't really about any physics concepts but about visualizing mathematical objects that happen to be used in physics. $\endgroup$
    – Kyle Kanos
    Aug 3, 2018 at 12:22
  • $\begingroup$ "a Heat source would continuously increase if go in radially? why isn't this a direction defining the scalar field?" What you are describing is not a property of the scalar field, but rather thinking about how this scalar field changes over time and space. For example, heat flow has a direction. If flows against the temperature gradient (which has a direction). So I think your confusion, at least on this point, is that you are thinking about a scalar field whose change can be associated with a direction, where as the elements in the field themselves do not have a direction. $\endgroup$ Aug 3, 2018 at 16:34
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    $\begingroup$ @AaronStevens I think that point is now clear to me with the help of gradient as it's essentially a vector that shows the steepness of the curve and indicates how to move in order to reach the maximum value in the fastest way. $\endgroup$
    – paulplusx
    Aug 3, 2018 at 16:37

1 Answer 1


I understood it with several resources present online.

Scalar fields are pretty much easy to visualize as they associate a magnitude to a particular point in a space. For example Lets assume a Temperature field with a heat source (100$^\circ$C) at the origin and Function be :

$T(x,y)=100e^{-(x^2+y^2)}$ $^\circ$C

3D scalar field plot wolframaplha

The 3D plot is from WolframAlpha. See it at WolframAlpha or try the below code at Wolfram Cloud.

Plot3D[100 E^(-x^2 - y^2), {x, -1.2, 1.2}, {y, -1.2, 1.2}]

Its pretty much clear that each point in space will have a temperature associated to it, if we go away from that source the temperature will decrease while going towards the source will increase the temperature (100$^\circ$C at the center). If you were there at position $x_0,y_0$ you would "feel" the temperature $T(x_0,y_0)$ due to the scalar field. Remember there is no direction here.

One may intuitively feel (that's where I got confused) that the direction is radially in or out due to the increase or decrease of values and yes that's a vector but it's not $T(x,y)$, its $\nabla T$ or the gradient of T and the vectors of this field essentially point in a direction which would allow us to reach the maximum value of the function (here its the center of the heat source) in the fasted way possible (least amount of change in the input) or the direction of steepest ascent. Here is how it would look for the given scalar.

vector field of grad of the scalar field

Check it at WolframAlpha. The directions of the vectors are pretty much self-explanatory here. To go to the heat source (maximum function value) directly you would have to go straight. This is a very simple example but the important thing is the idea. A better view of the gradient can be seen using the below code at Wolfram Cloud.

Table[VectorPlot[{-200 E^(-x^2 - y^2) x, -200 E^(-x^2 - y^2) y}, {x, -1.4375, 1.4375}, {y, -1.6362, 1.6183},  PlotLabel  k, 
  VectorPoints  k], {k, {Coarse }}]

Now for a Vector field. If you go by the definition, it outputs a vector for every point in space (in it's domain) but it's hard to imagine a vector field. The simplest way to understand it is by using an imaginary particle/fluid flow in a vector field. Each and every vector in the field has a direction associated to it, this "direction" part of the vector shows the pattern of flow of the particle as if it were in the field. The magnitude of the vector would denote how strongly the field is causing the flow of the particle or how strongly it's responsible for it's motion.The essential conclusion is that the vector field is a sort of a force field (effecting different particles accordingly with respect to the nature of the field: Electric, magnetic, gravity, etc.) and the force is experienced by the particle in the direction of the vectors for that specific point in space.

Consider the function:


The below GIF is from a video from Khan Academy demonstrating the particle (or fluid) flow. The function is $\vec{V}(x,y)$

vector fuild flow - khanacademy

It can be seen clearly that the particles move in the direction of their nearest vector and the speed varies with vectors of different magnitude influencing them to move.

Note: The magnitude of the vectors in the GIF are not drawn to scale. They are shown to be of equal magnitude even though they are not. This figure from wolfram shows a more accurate plot of the field. The speed of the particle flow can be compared with the length of the vectors shown here. At the center where the magnitude of the vector is small the speed of the flow is less and at the edge where the magnitude of the vector is large the speed of the flow is greater.

vector field wolframalpha

See it at WolframAlpha or try the below code at Wolfram Cloud for a more precise view.

Table[VectorPlot[{y (-9 + y^2), x (-9 + x^2)}, {x, -3.5, 3.5}, {y, -3.5, 3.5}, PlotLabel  k, 
  VectorPoints  k], {k, {Coarse}}]

That's how I understood the intuition of scalar and vector fields. To understand the behavior of scalar and vector fields better one should also try to know more about Gradient, Divergence and Curl. I hope that clears it.

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    $\begingroup$ super answer!!! $\endgroup$
    – user45664
    Aug 3, 2018 at 16:35

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