Summary
A point particle (ideal particle or point-like particle, often spelled pointlike particle) is an idealization of particles heavily used in physics. Its defining feature is that it lacks spatial extension; being dimensionless, it does not take up space. A point particle is an appropriate representation of any object whenever its size, shape, and structure are irrelevant in a given context. For example, from far enough away, any finite-size object will look and behave as a point-like object. Point masses and point charges, discussed below, are two common cases. When a point particle has an additive property, such as mass or charge, it is often represented mathematically by a Dirac delta function. In quantum mechanics, the concept of a point particle is complicated by the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, because even an elementary particle, with no internal structure, occupies a nonzero volume. For example, the atomic orbit of an electron in the hydrogen atom occupies a volume of ~e-30m3. There is nevertheless a distinction between elementary particles such as electrons or quarks, which have no known internal structure, versus composite particles such as protons, which do have internal structure: A proton is made of three quarks. Elementary particles are sometimes called "point particles" in reference to their lack of internal structure, but this is in a different sense than discussed above. Point mass (pointlike mass) is the concept, for example in classical physics, of a physical object (typically matter) that has nonzero mass, and yet explicitly and specifically is (or is being thought of or modeled as) infinitesimal (infinitely small) in its volume or linear dimensions. In the theory of gravity, extended objects can behave as point-like even in their immediate vicinity. For example, spherical objects interacting in 3-dimensional space whose interactions are described by the Newtonian gravitation behave in such a way as if all their matter were concentrated in their centers of mass.
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