Polarization (also polarisation) is a property of waves that can oscillate with more than one orientation. Electromagnetic waves, such as light, and gravitational waves exhibit polarization whereas this is not a concern with sound waves in a gas or liquid which have only one possible polarization, namely the direction in which the wave is travelling.
In an electromagnetic wave such as light, both the electric field and magnetic field are oscillating but in different directions; by convention the "polarization" of light refers to the polarization of the electric field. Light which can be approximated as a plane wave in free space or in an isotropic medium propagates as a transverse wave -- both the electric and magnetic fields are perpendicular to the wave's direction of travel. The oscillation of these fields may be in a single direction (linear polarization), or the field may rotate at the optical frequency (circular or elliptical polarization). In that case the direction of the fields' rotation, and thus the specified polarization, may be either clockwise or counter clockwise; this is referred to as the wave's chirality or handedness.
The most common optical materials (such as glass) are isotropic and simply preserve the polarization of a wave but do not differentiate between polarization states. However there are important classes of materials classified as birefringent or optically active in which this is not the case and a wave's polarization will generally be modified or will affect propagation through it. A polarizer is an optical filter that transmits only one polarization.
Polarization is an important parameter in areas of science dealing with transverse wave propagation, such as optics, seismology, radio and microwaves. Especially impacted are technologies such as lasers, wireless and optical fiber telecommunications, and radar.
- 1 Theory
- 1.1 Wave propagation and polarization
- 1.2 Polarization state
- 1.3 Unpolarized light
- 1.4 Polarization in wave propagation
- 1.5 Polarization in specular reflection
- 1.6 Optical scattering
- 1.7 Parameterization of incoherent or partially polarized radiation
- 2 Measurement techniques involving polarization
- 3 Applications and examples
- 4 See also
- 5 Notes and references
- 6 External links
Wave propagation and polarization
Most sources of light are classified as incoherent and unpolarized (or only "partially polarized") because they consist of a random mixture of waves having different spatial characteristics, frequencies (wavelengths), phases, and polarization states. However for understanding electromagnetic waves and polarization in particular, it is easiest to just consider coherent planes waves; these are sinusoidal waves of one particular direction (or wavevector), frequency, phase, and polarization state. Characterizing an optical system in relation to a plane wave with those given parameters can then be used to predict its response to a more general case, since a wave with any specified spatial structure can be decomposed into a combination of plane waves (its so-called angular spectrum). And incoherent states can be modeled stochastically as a weighted combination of such uncorrelated waves with some distribution of frequencies (its spectrum), phases, and polarizations.
Transverse electromagnetic waves
Plane electromagnetic waves (such as light), traveling in free space or another homogeneous isotropic non-attenuating medium, are properly described as transverse waves, meaning that the wave's electric field vector E and magnetic field H are in directions perpendicular to (or "transverse" to) the direction of wave propagation; E and H are also perpendicular to each other. Considering a plane wave of a given optical frequency f (light of wavelength λ has a frequency of f = c/λ where c is the speed of light), let us arbitrarily assign the direction of propagation as the z axis so that E and H must lie in the x-y plane. The physical electric field and magnetic fields are often considered to be the real parts of their corresponding complex quantities given by the following equations. As a function of time t, and spatial position z (for a plane wave in the +z direction the fields have no dependence on x or y) these complex quantities can be written as:
where k is the magnitude of the wavevector (being entirely in the z direction in this case). The leading vectors e and h each consist of two complex numbers describing the amplitude of the wave in the x and y polarizations (again, the z component of the electric and magnetic fields are zero for this transverse wave in the +z direction). For a given medium with a characteristic impedance , h is related to e by:
so that one can just as well specify the wave in terms of just ex and ey describing the electric field. The vector containing ex and ey (but without the z component which is necessarily zero for a transverse wave) is known as a Jones vector. In addition to specifying the polarization state of the wave, a general Jones vector also specifies the overall magnitude and phase of that wave. Specifically, the intensity of the light wave is proportional to the sum of the squared magnitudes of the two electric field components:
however the wave's polarization is only dependent on the (complex) ratio of ey to ex. So let us just consider waves whose |ex|2 + |ey|2 = 1; this happens to correspond to an intensity of about .00133 watts per square meter in free space (where ). And since the absolute phase of a wave is unimportant in discussing its polarization state, let us stipulate that the phase of ex is zero, in other words ex is a real number while ey may be complex. Under these restrictions, ex and ey can be represented as follows:
where the polarization state is now totally parameterized by the value of Q (such that -1 < Q < 1) and the relative phase . By convention when one speaks of a wave's "polarization," if not otherwise specified, reference is being made to the polarization of the electric field. The polarization of the magnetic field always follows that of the electric field but with a 90 degree rotation, as detailed above.
Other types of polarization
In addition to transverse waves, there are many wave motions where the oscillation is not limited to directions perpendicular to the direction of propagation. These cases are beyond the scope of the current article which concentrates on transverse waves (such as most electromagnetic waves in bulk media), however one should be aware of cases where the polarization of a coherent wave cannot be described simply using a Jones vector, as we have just done.
Just considering electromagnetic waves, we note that the preceding discussion strictly applies to plane waves in a homogeneous isotropic non-attenuating medium, whereas in an anisotropic medium (such as birefringent crystals as discussed below) the electric and/or magnetic field may have longitudinal as well as transverse components. In those cases the electric displacement D and magnetic flux density B still obey the above geometry but due to anisotropy in the electric susceptibility (or in the magnetic permeability), now given by a tensor, the direction of E (or H) may differ from that of D (or B). Even in isotropic media, so-called inhomogeneous waves can be launched into a medium whose refractive index has a significant imaginary part (or "extinction coefficient") such as metals; these fields are also not strictly transverse.:179-184:51-52 Surface waves or waves propagating in a waveguide (such as an optical fiber) are generally not transverse waves, but might be described as an electric or magnetic transverse mode, or a hybrid mode.
Even in free space, longitudinal field components can be generated in focal regions, where the plane wave approximation breaks down. An extreme example is radially or tangentially polarized light, at the focus of which the electric or magnetic field respectively is entirely longitudinal (along the direction of propagation).
For longitudinal waves such as sound waves in fluids, the direction of oscillation is by definition along the direction of travel, so the issue of polarization is not normally even mentioned. On the other hand, sound waves in a bulk solid can be transverse as well as longitudinal, for a total of three polarization components. In this case, the transverse polarization is associated with the direction of the shear stress and displacement in directions perpendicular to the propagation direction, while the longitudinal polarization describes compression of the solid and vibration along the direction of propagation. The differential propagation of transverse and longitudinal polarizations is important in seismology.
Over each cycle of a sinusoidal wave, the electric field vector (as well as the magnetic field) traces out an ellipse; note that a line and circle are special cases of ellipses. The shape and orientation of this ellipse (or line) defines the polarization state. The following figures show some examples of the evolution of the electric field vector (black), with time (the vertical axes), at a particular point in space, along with its x (red) and y (blue) components; at the base is the path traced by the vector in the transverse plane.
In the leftmost figure above, the electric field's x and y components (according to the axes we have established) are exactly in phase. The net result is polarization along a particular direction (depending on the relative amplitudes of the two components) in the x-y plane over each cycle. Since the vector traces out a single line in the plane, this special case is called linear polarization. Most polarizing filters produce linear polarization from unpolarized light.
In the middle figure, the x and y components still have the same amplitude but now are exactly ninety degrees out of phase. In this special case the electric vector traces out a circle in the plane, and is thus referred to as circular polarization. Depending on whether the phase difference is + or -90 degrees, it may be qualified as right-hand circular polarization or left-hand circular polarization, depending on one's convention.
The more general case with the two components out of phase by a different amount, or 90 degrees out of phase but with different amplitudes  is called elliptical polarization because the electric vector traces out an ellipse (the polarization ellipse). This is shown in the above figure on the right. Again, the same ellipse shape can be produced either by a clockwise or counterclockwise rotation of the field, corresponding to distinct polarization states.
Of course the orientation of the x and y axes in such a picture is arbitrary, and any state of polarization can be represented regardless. One would typically chose axes to suit a particular problem such as x being in the plane of incidence. Moreover, one can use as basis functions any pair of orthogonal polarization states. Beyond the linear polarizations we have used here, the most useful choice is right and left circularly polarized states. The Cartesian polarization decomposition is natural when dealing with reflection from surfaces, birefringent materials, or synchrotron radiation. The circularly polarized modes are a more useful basis for the study of light propagation in stereoisomers.
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For ease of visualization, polarization states are often specified in terms of the polarization ellipse, specifically its orientation and elongation. A common parameterization uses the orientation angle, ψ, the angle between the major semi-axis of the ellipse and the x-axis (also known as tilt angle or azimuth angle) and the ellipticity, ε, the major-to-minor-axis ratio (also known as the axial ratio). An ellipticity of zero or infinity corresponds to linear polarization and an ellipticity of 1 corresponds to circular polarization. The ellipticity angle, χ = arccot ε= arctan 1/ε, is also commonly used. An example is shown in the diagram to the right. An alternative to the ellipticity or ellipticity angle is the eccentricity; however, unlike the azimuth angle and ellipticity angle, the latter has no obvious geometrical interpretation in terms of the Poincaré sphere (see below).
Full information on a completely polarized state is also provided by the amplitude and phase of oscillations in two components of the electric field vector in the plane of polarization. This representation was used above to show how different states of polarization are possible. The amplitude and phase information can be conveniently represented as a two-dimensional complex vector (the Jones vector):
Here and denote the amplitude of the wave in the two components of the electric field vector, while and represent the phases. The product of a Jones vector with a complex number of unit modulus gives a different Jones vector representing the same ellipse, and thus the same state of polarization. The physical electric field, as the real part of the Jones vector, would be altered but the polarization state itself is independent of absolute phase. The basis vectors used to represent the Jones vector need not represent linear polarization states (i.e. be real). In general any two orthogonal states can be used, where an orthogonal vector pair is formally defined as one having a zero inner product. A common choice is left and right circular polarizations, for example to model the different propagation of waves in two such components in circularly birefringent media (see below) or signal paths of coherent detectors sensitive to circular polarization.
Regardless of whether polarization ellipses are represented using geometric parameters or Jones vectors, implicit in the parameterization is the orientation of the coordinate frame. This permits a degree of freedom, namely rotation about the propagation direction. When considering light that is propagating parallel to the surface of the Earth, the terms "horizontal" and "vertical" polarization are often used, with the former being associated with the first component of the Jones vector, or zero azimuth angle. On the other hand, in astronomy the equatorial coordinate system is generally used instead, with the zero azimuth (or position angle, as it is more commonly called in astronomy to avoid confusion with the horizontal coordinate system) corresponding to due north.
s and p designations
Another coordinate system frequently used relates to the plane made by the propagation direction and a vector perpendicular to the plane of a reflecting surface. This is known as the plane of incidence. The component of the electric field parallel to this plane is termed p-like (parallel) and the component perpendicular to this plane is termed s-like (from senkrecht, German for perpendicular). Polarized light with its electric field along the plane of incidence is thus denoted p-polarized, while light whose electric field is normal to the plane of incidence is called s-polarized. p polarization is commonly referred to as transverse-magnetic (TM), and has also been termed pi-polarized or tangential plane polarized. s polarized light is also called transverse-electric (TE), as well as sigma-polarized or sagittal plane polarized.
Most common sources of visible light, including thermal (black body) radiation and fluorescence (but not lasers), produce light described as "incoherent". Radiation is produced independently by a large number of atoms or molecules whose emissions are uncorrelated and generally of random polarizations. In this case the light is said to be unpolarized. This term is somewhat inexact, since at any instant of time at one location there is a definite direction to the electric and magnetic fields, however it implies that the polarization changes so quickly in time that it will not be measured or relevant to the outcome of an experiment. A so-called depolarizer acts on a polarized beam to create one which is actually fully polarized at every point, but in which the polarization varies so rapidly across the beam that it may be ignored in the intended applications.
Light is said to be partially polarized when there is more power in one polarization mode than another. At any particular wavelength, partially polarized light can be statistically described as the superposition of a completely unpolarized component, and a completely polarized one. One may then describe the light in terms of the degree of polarization, and the parameters of the polarized component. Stokes parameters are the most common way of specifying such states of partial polarization.
Polarization in wave propagation
In a vacuum, the components of the electric field propagate at the speed of light, so that the phase of the wave varies in space and time while the polarization state does not. That is, the electric field vector e of a plane wave in the +z direction follows:
where k is the wavenumber. As noted above, the instantaneous electric field is the real part of the product of the Jones vector times the phase factor . When an electromagnetic wave interacts with matter, its propagation is altered according to the material's (complex) index of refraction. When the real or imaginary part of that refractive index is dependent on the polarization state of a wave, properties known as birefringence and polarization dichroism (or diattenuation) respectively, then the polarization state of a wave will generally be altered.
In such media, an electromagnetic wave with any given state of polarization may be decomposed into two orthogonally polarized components that encounter different propagation constants. The effect of propagation over a given path on those two components is most easily characterized in the form of a complex 2×2 transformation matrix J known as a Jones matrix:
The Jones matrix due to passage through a transparent material is dependent on the propagation distance as well as the birefringence. The birefringence (as well as the average refractive index) will generally be dispersive, that is, it will vary as a function of optical frequency (wavelength). In the case of non-birefringent materials, however, the 2×2 Jones matrix is the identity matrix (multiplied by a scalar phase factor and attenuation factor), implying no change in polarization during propagation.
For propagation effects in two orthogonal modes, the Jones matrix can be written as
where g1 and g2 are complex numbers describing the phase delay and possibly the amplitude attenuation due to propagation in each of the two polarization eigenmodes. T is a unitary matrix representing a change of basis from these propagation modes to the linear system used for the Jones vectors; in the case of linear birefringence or diattenuation the modes are themselves linear polarization states so T and T−1 can be omitted if the coordinate axes have been chosen appropriately. In media termed birefringent, in which the amplitudes are unchanged but a differential phase delay occurs, the Jones matrix is a unitary matrix: |g1| = |g2| = 1. Media termed diattenuating (or dichroic in the sense of polarization), in which only the amplitudes of the two polarizations are affected differentially, may be described using a Hermitian matrix (generally multiplied by a common phase factor). In fact, since any matrix may be written as the product of unitary and positive Hermitian matrices, light propagation through any sequence of polarization-dependent optical components can be written as the product of these two basic types of transformations.
In birefringent media there is no attenuation but two modes accrue a differential phase delay. Well known manifestations of linear birefringence (that is, in which the basis polarizations are orthogonal linear polarizations) appear in optical wave plates/retarders and many crystals. If linearly polarized light passes through a birefringent material, its state of polarization will generally change unless its polarization direction is identical to one of those basis polarizations. Since the phase shift, and thus the change in polarization state, is usually wavelength dependent, such objects viewed under white light in between two polarizers may give rise to colorful effects, as seen in the accompanying photograph.
Circular birefringence is also termed optical activity especially in chiral fluids, or Faraday rotation when due to the presence of a magnetic field along the direction of propagation. When linearly polarized light is passed through such an object, it will exit still linearly polarized but with the axis of polarization rotated. A combination of linear and circular birefringence will have as basis polarizations two orthogonal elliptical polarizations; the term "elliptical birefringence" however is rarely used.
Paths taken by vectors in the Poincaré sphere under birefringence. The propagation modes (rotation axes) are shown with red, blue, and yellow lines, the initial vectors by thick black lines, and the paths they take by colored ellipses (which represent circles in three dimensions).
One can visualize the case of linear birefringence (with two orthogonal linear propagation modes) with an incoming wave linearly polarized at a 45° angle to those modes. As a differential phase starts to accrue, the polarization becomes elliptical, eventually changing to purely circular polarization (90° phase difference), then to elliptical and eventually linear polarization (180° phase) perpendicular to the original polarization, then through circular again (270° phase), then elliptical with the original azimuth angle, and finally back to the original linearly polarized state (360° phase) where the cycle begins anew. In general the situation is more complicated and can be characterized as a rotation in the Poincaré sphere about the axis defined by the propagation modes. Examples for linear (blue), circular (red), and elliptical (yellow) birefringence are shown in the figure on the left. The total intensity and degree of polarization are unaffected. If the path length in the birefringent medium is sufficient, the two polarization components of a collimated beam (or ray) can exit the material with a positional offset, even though their final propagation directions will be the same (assuming the entrance face and exit face are parallel). This is commonly viewed using calcite crystals, which present the viewer with two slightly offset images, in opposite polarizations, of an object behind the crystal. It was this effect that provided the first discovery of polarization, by Erasmus Bartholinus in 1669.
Media in which the amplitude of one polarization mode is preferentially reduced are called dichroic or diattenuating. In terms of the Poincaré sphere, an input polarization state is "dragged" in the direction of the preferred mode. Devices that block nearly all of the radiation in one mode are known as polarizing filters or simply "polarizers". This corresponds to g2=0 in the above representation of the Jones matrix. The output is a specific polarization state but with an amplitude equal to the input wave's original amplitude in that polarization mode. Power in the other polarization mode is absorbed (or diverted). Thus if unpolarized light is passed through an ideal polarizer (where g1=1 and g2=0) exactly half of its initial power is retained. Practical polarizers, especially inexpensive sheet polarizers, have additional loss so that g1 < 1. However in many instances the more relevant figure of merit is the polarizer's degree of polarization or extinction ratio which involves a comparison of g1 to g2. Since Jone's vectors refer to waves' amplitudes (rather than intensity), when illuminated by unpolarized light the remaining power in the unwanted polarization will be (g2/g1)2 of the power in the intended polarization.
Polarization in specular reflection
In addition to birefringence and dichroism in extended media, polarization effects describable using Jones matrices can also occur at (reflective) interface between two materials of different refractive index. These effects are treated by the Fresnel equations. Part of the wave is transmitted and part is reflected; for a given material those proportions are dependent on the angle of incidence and are different for the s and p polarizations. Therefore the polarization state of reflected light (even if initially unpolarized) is generally changed. Any light striking a surface at a special angle of incidence known as Brewster's angle, where the reflection coefficient for p polarization is zero, will be reflected with only the s-polarization remaining. The generally smaller reflection coefficient of the p polarization is the basis of polarized sunglasses; by blocking the s (horizontal) polarization, most of the glare due to reflection from a wet street, for instance, is removed.
A reflected wave is a mirror image of the incident wave, therefore an elliptically or circularly polarized reflection will have the opposite handedness to the incident wave.
The transmission of plane waves through a homogeneous medium are fully described in terms of Jones vectors and 2×2 Jones matrices. However in practice there are cases in which all of the light cannot be viewed in such a simple manner due to spatial inhomogeneities or the presence of mutually incoherent waves. So-called depolarization, for instance, cannot be described using Jones matrices. For these cases it is usual instead to use a 4×4 matrix that acts upon the Stokes 4-vector. Such matrices were first used by Paul Soleillet in 1929, although they have come to be known as Mueller matrices. While every Jones matrix has a Mueller matrix, the reverse is not true. Mueller matrices are then used to describe the observed polarization effects of the scattering of waves from complex surfaces or ensembles of particles, as shall now be presented.
Parameterization of incoherent or partially polarized radiation
The Jones vector perfectly describes the state of polarization and phase of a single monochromatic wave, representing a pure state of polarization as described above. However any mixture of waves of different polarizations (or even of different frequencies) do not correspond to a Jones vector. In so-called partially polarized radiation the fields are stochastic, and the variations and correlations between components of the electric field can only be described statistically. One such representation is the coherency matrix:
where angular brackets denote averaging over many wave cycles. Several variants of the coherency matrix have been proposed: the Wiener coherency matrix and the spectral coherency matrix of Richard Barakat measure the coherence of a spectral decomposition of the signal, while the Wolf coherency matrix averages over all time/frequencies.
The coherency matrix contains all second order statistical information about the polarization. This matrix can be decomposed into the sum of two idempotent matrices, corresponding to the eigenvectors of the coherency matrix, each representing a polarization state that is orthogonal to the other. An alternative decomposition is into completely polarized (zero determinant) and unpolarized (scaled identity matrix) components. In either case, the operation of summing the components corresponds to the incoherent superposition of waves from the two components. The latter case gives rise to the concept of the "degree of polarization"; i.e., the fraction of the total intensity contributed by the completely polarized component.
The coherency matrix is not easy to visualize, and it is therefore common to describe incoherent or partially polarized radiation in terms of its total intensity (I), (fractional) degree of polarization (p), and the shape parameters of the polarization ellipse. An alternative and mathematically convenient description is given by the Stokes parameters, introduced by George Gabriel Stokes in 1852. The relationship of the Stokes parameters to intensity and polarization ellipse parameters is shown in the equations and figure below.
Here Ip, 2ψ and 2χ are the spherical coordinates of the polarization state in the three-dimensional space of the last three Stokes parameters. Note the factors of two before ψ and χ corresponding respectively to the facts that any polarization ellipse is indistinguishable from one rotated by 180°, or one with the semi-axis lengths swapped accompanied by a 90° rotation. The Stokes parameters are sometimes denoted I, Q, U and V.
The Stokes parameters contain all of the information of the coherency matrix, and are related to it linearly by means of the identity matrix plus the three Pauli matrices:
Mathematically, the factor of two relating physical angles to their counterparts in Stokes space derives from the use of second-order moments and correlations, and incorporates the loss of information due to absolute phase invariance.
The figure above makes use of a convenient representation of the last three Stokes parameters as components in a three-dimensional vector space. This space is closely related to the Poincaré sphere, which is the spherical surface occupied by completely polarized states in the space of the vector
All four Stokes parameters can also be combined into the four-dimensional Stokes vector, which can be interpreted as four-vectors of Minkowski space. In this case, all physically realizable polarization states correspond to time-like, future-directed vectors.
Measurement techniques involving polarization
Some optical measurement techniques are based on polarization. In many other optical techniques polarization is crucial or at least must be taken into account and controlled; such examples are too numerous to mention.
Measurement of stress
In engineering, the phenomenon of stress induced birefringence allows for stresses in transparent materials to be readily observed. As noted above and seen in the accompanying photograph, the chromaticity of birefringence typically creates colored patterns when viewed in between two polarizers. As external forces are applied, internal stress induced in the material is thereby observed. Additionally, birefringence is frequently observed due to stresses "frozen in" at the time of manufacture. This is famously observed in cellophane tape whose birefringence is due to the stretching of the material during the manufacturing process.
Ellipsometry is a powerful technique for the measurement of the optical properties of a uniform surface. It involves measuring the polarization state of light following specular reflection from such a surface. This is typically done as a function of incidence angle and/or wavelength. Since ellipsometry relies on reflection, it is not required for the sample to be transparent to light or for its back side to be accessible.
Ellipsometry can be used to model the (complex) refractive index of a surface of a bulk material. It is also very useful in determining parameters of one or more thin film layers deposited on a substrate. Due to their reflection properties, not only are the predicted magnitude of the p and s polarization components, but their relative phase shifts upon reflection, compared to measurements using an ellipsometer. A normal ellipsometer does not measure the actual reflection coefficient (which requires careful photometric calibration of the illuminating beam) but the ratio of the p and s reflections, as well as change of polarization ellipticity (hence the name) induced upon reflection by the surface being studied. In addition to use in science and research, ellipsometers are used in situ to control production processes for instance.:585ff:632
The property of (linear) birefringence is widespread in crystalline minerals, and indeed was pivotal in the initial discovery of polarization. In mineralogy, this property is frequently exploited using polarization microscopes, for the purpose of identifying minerals. See optical mineralogy for more details.:163-164
Sound waves in solid materials exhibit polarization. Differential propagation of the three polarizations through the earth is a crucial in the field of seismology. Horizontally and vertically polarized seismic waves (shear waves)are termed SH and SV, while waves with longitudinal polarization (compressional waves) are termed P-waves.:48-50:56-57
We have seen (above) that the birefringence of a type of crystal is useful in identifying it, and thus detection of linear birefringence is especially useful in geology and mineralogy. Linearly polarized light generally has its polarization state altered upon transmission through such a crystal, making it stand out when viewed in between two crossed polarizers, as seen in the photograph, above. Likewise, in chemistry, rotation of polarization axes in a liquid solution can be a useful measurement. In a liquid, linear birefringence is impossible, however there may be circular birefringence when a chiral molecule is in solution. When the right and left handed enantiomers of such a molecule are present in equal numbers (a so-called racemic mixture) then their effects cancel out. However when there is only one (or a preponderance of one), as is more often the case for organic molecules, a net circular birefringence (or optical activity) is observed, revealing the magnitude of that imbalance (or the concentration of the molecule itself, when it can be assumed that only one enantiomer is present). This is measured using a polarimeter in which polarized light is passed through a tube of the liquid, at the end of which is another polarizer which is rotated in order to null the transmission of light through it.:360-365:169-172
In many areas of astronomy, the study of polarized electromagnetic radiation from outer space is of great importance. Although not usually a factor in the thermal radiation of stars, polarization is also present in radiation from coherent astronomical sources (e.g. hydroxyl or methanol masers), and incoherent sources such as the large radio lobes in active galaxies, and pulsar radio radiation (which may, it is speculated, sometimes be coherent), and is also imposed upon starlight by scattering from interstellar dust. Apart from providing information on sources of radiation and scattering, polarization also probes the interstellar magnetic field via Faraday rotation.:119,124:336-337 The polarization of the cosmic microwave background is being used to study the physics of the very early universe. Synchrotron radiation is inherently polarised. It has been suggested that astronomical sources caused the chirality of biological molecules on Earth.
Applications and examples
Unpolarized light, after reflection at a specular (shiny) surface, generally obtains a degree of polarization. This phenomenon was observed in 1808 by the mathematician Étienne-Louis Malus after whom Malus' law is named. Polarizing sunglasses exploit this effect to reduce glare from reflections by horizontal surfaces, notably the road ahead viewed at a grazing angle.
Wearers of polarized sunglasses will occasionally observe inadvertent polarization effects such as color-dependent birefringent effects, for example in toughened glass (e.g., car windows) or items made from transparent plastics, in conjunction with natural polarization by reflection or scattering. The polarized light from LCD monitors (see below) is very conspicuous when these are worn.
Sky polarization and photography
Polarization is observed in the light of the sky, as this is due to sunlight scattered by aerosols as it passes through the earth's atmosphere. The scattered light produces the brightness and color in clear skies. This partial polarization of scattered light can be used to darken the sky in photographs, increasing the contrast. This effect is most strongly observed at points on the sky making a 90° angle to the sun. Polarizing filters use these effects to optimize the results of photographing scenes in which reflection or scattering by the sky is involved.
Sky polarization has been used for orientation in navigation. The "sky compass", was used in the 1950s when navigating near the poles of the Earth's magnetic field when neither the sun nor stars were visible (e.g., under daytime cloud or twilight). It has been suggested, controversially, that the Vikings exploited a similar device (the "sunstone") in their extensive expeditions across the North Atlantic in the 9th–11th centuries, before the arrival of the magnetic compass in Europe in the 12th century. Related to the sky compass is the "polar clock", invented by Charles Wheatstone in the late 19th century.
The principle of liquid-crystal display (LCD) technology relies on the rotation of the axis of linear polarization by the liquid crystal array. Light from the backlight (or the back reflective layer, in devices not including or requiring a backlight) first passes through a linear polarizing sheet. That polarized light passes through the actual liquid crystal layer which may be organized in pixels (for a TV or computer monitor) or in another format such as a seven-segment display or one with custom symbols for a particular product. The liquid crystal layer is produced with a consistent right (or left) handed chirality, essentially consisting of tiny helices. This causes circular birefringence, and is engineered so that there is a 90 degree rotation of the linear polarization state. However when a voltage is applied across a cell, the molecules straighten out, lessening or totally losing the circular birefringence. On the viewing side of the display is another linear polarizing sheet, usually oriented at 90 degrees from the one behind the active layer. Therefore when the circular birefringence is removed by the application of a sufficient voltage, the polarization of the transmitted light remains at right angles to the front polarizer, and the pixel appears dark. With no voltage, however, the 90 degree rotation of the polarization causes it to exactly match the axis of the front polarizer, allowing the light through. Intermediate voltages create intermediate rotation of the polarization axis and the pixel has an intermediate intensity. Displays based on this principle are widespread, and now are used in the vast majority of televisions, computer monitors and video projectors, rendering the previous CRT technology essentially obsolete. The use of polarization in the operation of LCD displays is immediately apparent to someone wearing polarized sunglasses, often making the display unreadable.
In a totally different sense, polarization encoding has become the leading (but not sole) method for delivering separate images to the left and right eye in stereoscopic displays used for 3D movies. This involves separate images intended for each eye either projected from two different projectors with orthogonally oriented polarizing filters or, more typically, from a single projector with time multiplexed polarization (a fast alternating polarization device for successive frames). Polarized 3D glasses with suitable polarizing filters ensure that each eye receives only the intended image. Historically such systems used linear polarization encoding because it was inexpensive and offered good separation. However circular polarization makes separation of the two images insensitive to tilting of the head, and is widely used in 3-D movie exhibition today, such as the system from RealD. Projecting such images requires screens that maintain the polarization of the projected light when viewed in reflection (such as silver screens); a normal diffuse white projection screen causes depolarization of the projected images, making it unsuitable for this application.
Although now obsolete, CRT computer displays suffered from reflection by the glass envelope, causing glare from room lights and consequently poor contrast. Several anti-reflection solutions were employed to ameliorate this problem. One solution utilized the principle of reflection of circularly polarized light. A circular polarizing filter in front of the screen allows for the transmission of (say) only right circularly polarized room light. Now, right circularly polarized light (depending on the convention used) has its electric (and magnetic) field direction rotating clockwise while propagating in the +z direction. Upon reflection, the field still has the same direction of rotation, but now propagation is in the -z direction making the reflected wave left circularly polarized. With the right circular polarization filter placed in front of the reflecting glass, the unwanted light reflected from the glass will thus be in very polarization state that is blocked by that filter, eliminating the reflection problem. The reversal of circular polarization on reflection and elimination of reflections in this manner can be easily observed by looking in a mirror while wearing 3-D movie glasses which employ left and right handed circular polarization in the two lenses. Closing one eye, the other eye will see a reflection in which it cannot see itself; that lens appears black! However the other lens (of the closed eye) will have the correct circular polarization allowing the closed eye to be easily seen by the open one.
All radio (and microwave) antennas used for transmitting and/or receiving are intrinsically polarized. They transmit in (or receive signals from) a particular polarization, being totally insensitive to the opposite polarization; in certain cases that polarization is a function of direction. As is the convention in optics, the "polarization" of a radio wave is understood to refer to the polarization of its electric field, with the magnetic field being at a 90 degree rotation with respect to it for a linearly polarized wave.
The vast majority of antennas are linearly polarized. In fact it can be shown from considerations of symmetry that an antenna that lies entirely in a plane which also includes the observer, can only have its polarization in the direction of that plane. This applies to many cases, allowing one to easily infer such an antenna's polarization at an intended direction of propagation. So a typical rooftop Yagi or log-periodic antenna with horizontal conductors, as viewed from a second station toward the horizon, is necessarily horizontally polarized. But a vertical "whip antenna" or AM broadcast tower used as an antenna element (again, for observers horizontally displaced from it) will transmit in the vertical polarization. A turnstile antenna with its four arms in the horizontal plane, likewise transmits horizontally polarized radiation toward the horizon. However when that same turnstile antenna is used in the "axial mode" (upwards, for the same horizontally-oriented structure) its radiation is circularly polarized. At intermediate elevations it is elliptically polarized.
Polarization is important in radio communications because, for instance, if one attempts to use a horizontally polarized antenna to receive a vertically polarized transmission, the signal strength will be substantially reduced (or under very controlled conditions, reduced to nothing). This principle is used in satellite television in order to double the channel capacity over a fixed frequency band. The same frequency channel can be used for two signals broadcast in opposite polarizations. By adjusting the receiving antenna for one or the other polarization, either signal can be selected without interference from the other.
Especially due to the presence of the ground, there are some differences in propagation (and also in reflections responsible for TV ghosting) between horizontal and vertical polarizations. AM and FM broadcast radio usually use vertical polarization, while television uses horizontal polarization. At low frequencies especially, horizontal polarization is avoided. That is because the phase of a horizontally polarized wave is reversed upon reflection by the ground. A distant station in the horizontal direction will receive both the direct and reflected wave, which thus tend to cancel each other. This problem is avoided with vertical polarization. Polarization is also important in the transmission of radar pulses and reception of radar reflections by the same or a different antenna. For instance, back scattering of radar pulses by rain drops can be avoided by using circular polarization. Just as specular reflection of circularly polarized light reverses the handedness of the polarization, as discussed above, the same principle applies to scattering by objects much smaller than a wavelength such as rain drops. On the other hand, reflection of that wave by an irregular metal object (such as an airplane) will typically introduce a change in polarization and (partial) reception of the return wave by the same antenna.
Polarization and vision
Many animals are capable of perceiving some of the components of the polarization of light, e.g., linear horizontally polarized light. This is generally used for navigational purposes, since the linear polarization of sky light is always perpendicular to the direction of the sun. This ability is very common among the insects, including bees, which use this information to orient their communicative dances. Polarization sensitivity has also been observed in species of octopus, squid, cuttlefish, and mantis shrimp. In the latter case, one species measures all six orthogonal components of polarization, and is believed to have optimal polarization vision. The rapidly changing, vividly colored skin patterns of cuttlefish, used for communication, also incorporate polarization patterns, and mantis shrimp are known to have polarization selective reflective tissue. Sky polarization was thought to be perceived by pigeons, which was assumed to be one of their aids in homing, but research indicates this is a popular myth.
The naked human eye is weakly sensitive to polarization, without the need for intervening filters. Polarized light creates a very faint pattern near the center of the visual field, called Haidinger's brush. This pattern is very difficult to see, but with practice one can learn to detect polarized light with the naked eye.
Angular momentum using circular polarization
It is well known that electromagnetic radiation carries a certain linear momentum in the direction of propagation. In addition, however, light carries a certain angular momentum if it is circularly polarized (or partially so). In comparison with lower frequencies such as microwaves, the amount of angular momentum in light, even of pure circular polarization, compared to the same wave's linear momentum (or radiation pressure) is very small and difficult to even measure. However it was utilized in a remarkable experiment to achieve an incredibly high rotation speed.
The University of St Andrews team caused a microscopic bead of calcium carbonate 4 micrometres in diameter to rotate at speeds of up to 600 million revolutions per minute. The bead was suspended by a laser beam in a location using the principle of optical tweezers. However that beam was also circularly polarized. The calcium carbonate (calcite) bead, being birefringent, caused light transmitted through it to slightly change its polarization into one that was not fully circularly polarized, and which therefore had less angular momentum. The difference in the angular momentum between the incident beam and light transmitted through the bead was imparted to the bead itself. Suspended in a near-vacuum and facing little friction, the rotation rate of the bead could be increased to rates as high as 10 million revolutions per second. This rotation rate corresponded to a centrifugal acceleration some one billion times that of gravity on the Earth surface, but which surprisingly did not lead to the bead's disintegration. 
Notes and references
- Principles of Optics, 7th edition, M. Born & E. Wolf, Cambridge University, 1999, ISBN 0-521-64222-1.
- Fundamentals of polarized light: a statistical optics approach, C. Brosseau, Wiley, 1998, ISBN 0-471-14302-2.
- Polarized Light, second edition, Dennis Goldstein, Marcel Dekker, 2003, ISBN 0-8247-4053-X
- Field Guide to Polarization, Edward Collett, SPIE Field Guides vol. FG05, SPIE, 2005, ISBN 0-8194-5868-6.
- Polarization Optics in Telecommunications, Jay N. Damask, Springer 2004, ISBN 0-387-22493-9.
- Optics, 4th edition, Eugene Hecht, Addison Wesley 2002, ISBN 0-8053-8566-5.
- Polarized Light in Nature, G. P. Können, Translated by G. A. Beerling, Cambridge University, 1985, ISBN 0-521-25862-6.
- Polarised Light in Science and Nature, D. Pye, Institute of Physics, 2001, ISBN 0-7503-0673-4.
- Polarized Light, Production and Use, William A. Shurcliff, Harvard University, 1962.
- Ellipsometry and Polarized Light, R. M. A. Azzam and N. M. Bashara, North-Holland, 1977, ISBN 0-444-87016-4
- Secrets of the Viking Navigators—How the Vikings used their amazing sunstones and other techniques to cross the open oceans, Leif Karlsen, One Earth Press, 2003.
- Griffiths, David J. (1998), Introduction to Electrodynamics (3rd ed.), Prentice Hall, pp. isbn=0–13–805326–X
- Geoffrey New (7 April 2011). Introduction to Nonlinear Optics. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-139-50076-0.
- Dorn, R. and Quabis, S. and Leuchs, G. (dec 2003). "Sharper Focus for a Radially Polarized Light Beam". Physical Review Letters 91 (23,): 233901–+. Bibcode:2003PhRvL..91w3901D. doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.91.233901.
- Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (1960) Radiative transfer, p.27
- M. A. Sletten and D. J. McLaughlin, "Radar polarimetry", in K. Chang (ed.), Encyclopedia of RF and Microwave Engineering, John Wiley & Sons, 2005, ISBN 978-0-471-27053-9, 5832 pp.
- Merrill Ivan Skolnik (1990) Radar Handbook, Fig. 6.52, sec. 6.60.
- Hamish Meikle (2001) Modern Radar Systems, eq. 5.83.
- T. Koryu Ishii (Editor), 1995, Handbook of Microwave Technology. Volume 2, Applications, p. 177.
- John Volakis (ed) 2007 Antenna Engineering Handbook, Fourth Edition, sec. 26.1. Note: in contrast with other authors, this source initially defines ellipticity reciprocally, as the minor-to-major-axis ratio, but then goes on to say that "Although [it] is less than unity, when expressing ellipticity in decibels, the minus sign is frequently omitted for convenience", which essentially reverts back to the definition adopted by other authors.
- Dennis Goldstein; Dennis H. Goldstein (3 January 2011). Polarized Light, Revised and Expanded. CRC Press. ISBN 978-0-203-91158-7.
- Masud Mansuripur (2009). Classical Optics and Its Applications. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521881692.
- Randy O. Wayne (16 December 2013). Light and Video Microscopy. Academic Press. ISBN 978-0-12-411536-1.
- Peter M. Shearer (2009). Introduction to Seismology. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-88210-1.
- Seth Stein; Michael Wysession (1 April 2009). An Introduction to Seismology, Earthquakes, and Earth Structure. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-1-4443-1131-0.
- Hecht, Eugene (1998). Optics (3rd ed.). Reading, MA: Addison Wesley Longman. ISBN 0-19-510818-3.
- K. Peter C. Vollhardt; Neil E. Schore (2003). Organic Chemistry, Fourth Edition: Structure and Function. W. H. Freeman. ISBN 978-0-7167-4374-3.
- Vlemmings, W. H. T. (Mar. 2007). "A review of maser polarization and magnetic fields.". Proceedings of the International Astronomical Union 3 (S242): 37–46.
- Hannu Karttunen; Pekka Kröger; Heikki Oja (27 June 2007). Fundamental Astronomy. Springer. ISBN 978-3-540-34143-7.
- Boyle, Latham A.; Steinhardt, PJ; Turok, N (2006). "Inflationary predictions for scalar and tensor fluctuations reconsidered". Physical Review Letters 96 (11): 111301. arXiv:astro-ph/0507455. Bibcode:2006PhRvL..96k1301B. doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.96.111301. PMID 16605810.
- Tegmark, Max (2005). "What does inflation really predict?". JCAP 0504 (4): 001. arXiv:astro-ph/0410281. Bibcode:2005JCAP...04..001T. doi:10.1088/1475-7516/2005/04/001.
- Clark, S. (1999). "Polarised starlight and the handedness of Life". American Scientist 97: 336–43. Bibcode:1999AmSci..87..336C. doi:10.1511/1999.4.336.
- Sonja Kleinlogel, Andrew White (2008). "The secret world of shrimps: polarisation vision at its best". PLoS ONE 3 (5): e2190. arXiv:0804.2162. Bibcode:2008PLoSO...3.2190K. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002190. PMC 2377063. PMID 18478095.
- "No evidence for polarization sensitivity in the pigeon electroretinogram", J. J. Vos Hzn, M. A. J. M. Coemans & J. F. W. Nuboer, The Journal of Experimental Biology, 1995.
- "University of St Andrews scientists create 'fastest man-made spinning object'"
- "Laser-induced rotation and cooling of a trapped microgyroscope in vacuum", Research @ St. Andrews
- Polarized Light in Nature and Technology
- Polarized Light Digital Image Gallery: Microscopic images made using polarization effects
- Polarization by the University of Colorado Physics 2000: Animated explanation of polarization
- MathPages: The relationship between photon spin and polarization
- A virtual polarization microscope
- Polarization angle in satellite dishes.
- Using polarizers in photography
- Molecular Expressions: Science, Optics and You — Polarization of Light: Interactive Java tutorial
- Electromagnetic waves and circular dichroism: an animated tutorial
- HyperPhysics: Polarization concepts
- Tutorial on rotating polarization through waveplates (retarders)
- SPIE technical group on polarization
- A Java simulation on using polarizers
- Antenna Polarization
- Animations of Linear, Circular and Elliptical Polarizations on YouTube