polarized light

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Related to polarized light: unpolarized light, Circularly polarized light

Polarized light

Light which has its electric vector oriented in a predictable fashion with respect to the propagation direction. In unpolarized light, the vector is oriented in a random, unpredictable fashion. Even in short time intervals, it appears to be oriented in all directions with equal probability. Most light sources seem to be partially polarized so that some fraction of the light is polarized and the remainder unpolarized.

According to all available theoretical and experimental evidence, it is the electric vector rather than the magnetic vector of a light wave that is responsible for all the effects of polarization and other observed phenomena associated with light. Therefore, the electric vector of a light wave, for all practical purposes, can be identified as the light vector. See Crystal optics, Electromagnetic radiation, Light, Polarization of waves

One of the simplest ways of producing linearly polarized light is by reflection from a dielectric surface. At a particular angle of incidence, known as Brewster's angle, the reflectivity for light whose electric vector is in the plane of incidence becomes zero. The reflected light is thus linearly polarized at right angles to the plane of incidence.

Linear polarizing devices

The first polarizers were glass plates inclined so that the incident light was at Brewster's angle. Such polarizers are quite inefficient since only a small percentage of the incident light is reflected as polarized light.

Certain natural materials absorb linearly polarized light of one vibration direction much more strongly than light vibrating at right angles. Such materials are termed dichroic. Tourmaline is one of the best-known dichroic crystals, and tourmaline plates were used as polarizers for many years. See Dichroism

Other natural materials exist in which the velocity of light depends on the vibration direction. These materials are called birefringent. One of the best-known of these birefringent crystals is transparent calcite (Iceland spar). The Nicol prism is made of two pieces of calcite cemented together (Fig. 1). The cement is Canada balsam, in which the wave velocity is intermediate between the velocity in calcite for the fast and the slow ray. The angle at which the light strikes the boundary is such that for one ray the angle of incidence is greater than the critical angle for total reflection. Thus the rhomb is transparent for only one polarization direction. See Birefringence, Optics

Nicol prismenlarge picture
Nicol prism

A different type of polarizer, made of quartz, is shown in Fig. 2. Here the vibration directions are different in the two pieces so that the two rays are deviated as they pass through the material. The incoming light beam is thus separated into two oppositely linearly polarized beams which have an angular separation between them, and it is possible to select either beam.

Wollaston prismenlarge picture
Wollaston prism

A third mechanism for obtaining polarized light is the Polaroid sheet polarizer, of which there are three types. The first is a microcrystalline polarizer in which small crystals of a dichroic material are oriented parallel to each other in a plastic medium. The second type depends for its dichroism on a property of an iodine-in-water solution. The iodine appears to form a linear high polymer. If the iodine is put on a transparent oriented sheet of material such as polyvinyl alcohol (PVA), the iodine chains apparently line themselves parallel to the PVA molecules and the resulting dyed sheet is strongly dichroic. A third type of sheet polarizer depends for its dichroism directly on the molecules of the plastic itself. This plastic consists of oriented polyvinylene.

Polarization by scattering

When an unpolarized light beam is scattered by molecules or small particles, the light observed at right angles to the original beam is polarized. The best-known example of polarization by scattering is the light of the north sky. See Scattering of electromagnetic radiation


Polarized light is classified according to the orientation of the electric vector. In linearly polarized light, the electric vector remains in a plane containing the propagation direction. For monochromatic light, the amplitude of the vector changes sinusoidally with time. In circularly polarized light, the tip of the electric vector describes a circular helix about the propagation direction. The amplitude of the vector is constant. The frequency of rotation is equal to the frequency of the light. In elliptically polarized light, the vector also rotates about the propagation direction, but the amplitude of the vector changes so that the projection of the vector on a plane at right angles to the propagation direction describes an ellipse.

Circular and elliptical polarizing devices

Circularly and elliptically polarized light are normally produced by combining a linear polarizer with a wave plate. A Fresnel rhomb can be used to produce circularly polarized light.

A plate of material (quartz, calcite, or other birefringent crystals) which is linearly birefringent is called a wave plate or retardation sheet. Wave plates have a pair of orthogonal axes which are designated fast and slow. Polarized light with its electric vector parallel to the fast axis travels faster than light polarized parallel to the slow axis. The thickness of the material can be chosen so that for light traversing the plate, there is a definite phase shift between the fast component and the slow component. A plate with a 90° phase shift is termed a quarter-wave plate.

If linearly polarized light is incident normally on a quarter-wave plate and oriented at 45° to the fast axis, the transmitted light will be circularly polarized. If the linearly polarized light is at an angle other than 45° to the fast axis, the transmitted radiation will be elliptically polarized.

Analyzing devices

Polarized light is one of the most useful tools for studying the characteristics of materials. The absorption constant and refractive index of a metal can be calculated by measuring the effect of the metal on polarized light reflected from its surface. See Reflection of electromagnetic radiation

The analysis of polarized light can be performed with a variety of different devices. If the light is linearly polarized, it can be extinguished by a linear polarizer and the direction of polarization of the light determined directly from the orientation of the polarizer. If the light is elliptically polarized, it can be analyzed with the combination of a quarter-wave plate and a linear polarizer. Any such combination of polarizer and analyzer is called a polariscope.

McGraw-Hill Concise Encyclopedia of Physics. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

polarized light

[′pō·lə‚rīzd ′līt]
Polarized electromagnetic radiation whose frequency is in the optical region.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
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