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The splitting which a wavefront experiences when a wave disturbance is propagated in an anisotropic material; also called double refraction. In anisotropic substances the velocity of a wave is a function of displacement direction. Although the term birefringence could apply to transverse elastic waves, it is usually applied only to electromagnetic waves.

In birefringent materials either the separation between neighboring atomic structural units is different in different directions, or the bonds tying such units together have different characteristics in different directions. Many crystalline materials, such as calcite, quartz, and topaz, are birefringent. Diamonds, on the other hand, are isotropic and have no special effect on polarized light of different orientations. Plastics composed of long-chain molecules become anisotropic when stretched or compressed. Solutions of long-chain molecules become birefringent when they flow. This first phenomenon is called photoelasticity; the second, streaming birefringence. See Crystal optics, Polarized light, Refraction of waves


Splitting of a light beam into two components, which travel at different velocities, by a material.
For a light beam that has been split into two components by a material, the difference in the indices of refraction of the components within the material. Also known as double refraction.