Elliptical polarization

In electrodynamics, elliptical polarization is the polarization of electromagnetic radiation such that the tip of the electric field vector describes an ellipse in any fixed plane intersecting, and normal to, the direction of propagation. An elliptically polarized wave may be resolved into two linearly polarized waves in phase quadrature, with their polarization planes at right angles to each other. Since the electric field can rotate clockwise or counterclockwise as it propagates, elliptically polarized waves exhibit chirality.

Other forms of polarization, such as circular and linear polarization, can be considered to be special cases of elliptical polarization.

Elliptical polarization diagram

Mathematical description

The classical sinusoidal plane wave solution of the electromagnetic wave equation for the electric and magnetic fields is (Gaussian units)

for the magnetic field, where k is the wavenumber,

is the angular frequency of the wave propagating in the +z direction, and is the speed of light.

Here is the amplitude of the field and

is the normalized Jones vector. This is the most complete representation of polarized electromagnetic radiation and corresponds in general to elliptical polarization.

Polarization ellipse

Polarisation ellipse

At a fixed point in space (or for fixed z), the electric vector traces out an ellipse in the x-y plane. The semi-major and semi-minor axes of the ellipse have lengths A and B, respectively, that are given by



where . The orientation of the ellipse is given by the angle the semi-major axis makes with the x-axis. This angle can be calculated from


If , the wave is linearly polarized. The ellipse collapses to a straight line ) oriented at an angle . This is the case of superposition of two simple harmonic motions (in phase), one in the x direction with an amplitude , and the other in the y direction with an amplitude . When increases from zero, i.e., assumes positive values, the line evolves into an ellipse that is being traced out in the counterclockwise direction (looking in the direction of the propagating wave); this then corresponds to left-handed elliptical polarization; the semi-major axis is now oriented at an angle . Similarly, if becomes negative from zero, the line evolves into an ellipse that is being traced out in the clockwise direction; this corresponds to right-handed elliptical polarization.

If and , , i.e., the wave is circularly polarized. When , the wave is left-circularly polarized, and when , the wave is right-circularly polarized.


Any fixed polarization can be described in terms of the shape and orientation of the polarization ellipse, which is defined by two parameters: axial ratio AR and tilt angle . The axial ratio is the ratio of the lengths of the major and minor axes of the ellipse, and is always greater than or equal to one.

Alternatively, polarization can be represented as a point on the surface of the Poincaré sphere, with as the longitude and as the latitude, where . The sign used in the argument of the depends on the handedness of the polarization. Positive indicates left hand polarization, while negative indicates right hand polarization, as defined by IEEE.

For the special case of circular polarization, the axial ratio equals 1 (or 0 dB) and the tilt angle is undefined. For the special case of linear polarization, the axial ratio is infinite.

In nature

The reflected light from some beetles (e.g. Cetonia aurata) is elliptical polarized.[1]

See also


  1. ^ Chirality-induced polarization effects in the cuticle of scarab beetles: 100 years after Michelson. 2012

External links

Augustin-Jean Fresnel

Augustin-Jean Fresnel (UK: FRAY-nəl, US: fray-NEL; French: [oɡystɛ̃ʒɑ̃ fʁɛnɛl]; 10 May 1788 – 14 July 1827) was a French civil engineer and physicist whose research in optics led to the almost unanimous acceptance of the wave theory of light, excluding any remnant of Newton's corpuscular theory, from the late 1830s  until the end of the 19th century.

But he is perhaps better known for inventing the catadioptric (reflective/refractive) Fresnel lens and for pioneering the use of "stepped" lenses to extend the visibility of lighthouses, saving countless lives at sea. The simpler dioptric (purely refractive) stepped lens, first proposed by Count Buffon  and independently reinvented by Fresnel, is used in screen magnifiers and in condenser lenses for overhead projectors.

By expressing Huygens' principle of secondary waves and Young's principle of interference in quantitative terms, and supposing that simple colors consist of sinusoidal waves, Fresnel gave the first satisfactory explanation of diffraction by straight edges, including the first satisfactory wave-based explanation of rectilinear propagation. Part of his argument was a proof that the addition of sinusoidal functions of the same frequency but different phases is analogous to the addition of forces with different directions. By further supposing that light waves are purely transverse, Fresnel explained the nature of polarization and lack thereof, the mechanism of chromatic polarization (the colors produced when polarized light is passed through a slice of doubly-refractive crystal followed by a second polarizer), and the transmission and reflection coefficients at the interface between two transparent isotropic media (including Brewster's angle). Then, by generalizing the direction-speed-polarization relation for calcite, he accounted for the directions and polarizations of the refracted rays in doubly-refractive crystals of the biaxial class (those for which Huygens' secondary wavefronts are not axisymmetric). The period between the first publication of his pure-transverse-wave hypothesis and the submission of his first correct solution to the biaxial problem was less than a year. Later, he coined the terms linear polarization, circular polarization, and elliptical polarization, explained how optical rotation could be understood as a difference in propagation speeds for the two directions of circular polarization, and (by allowing the reflection coefficient to be complex) accounted for the change in polarization due to total internal reflection, as exploited in the Fresnel rhomb. Defenders of the established corpuscular theory could not match his quantitative explanations of so many phenomena on so few assumptions.

Fresnel's legacy is the more remarkable in view of his lifelong battle with tuberculosis, to which he succumbed at the age of 39. Although he did not become a public celebrity in his short lifetime, he lived just long enough to receive due recognition from his peers, including (on his deathbed) the Rumford Medal of the Royal Society of London, and his name is ubiquitous in the modern terminology of optics and waves. Inevitably, after the wave theory of light was subsumed by Maxwell's electromagnetic theory in the 1860s, some attention was diverted from the magnitude of Fresnel's contribution. In the period between Fresnel's unification of physical optics and Maxwell's wider unification, a contemporary authority, Professor Humphrey Lloyd, described Fresnel's transverse-wave theory as "the noblest fabric which has ever adorned the domain of physical science, Newton's system of the universe alone excepted."

Circular polarization

In electrodynamics, circular polarization of an electromagnetic wave is a polarization state in which, at each point, the electric field of the wave has a constant magnitude but its direction rotates with time at a steady rate in a plane perpendicular to the direction of the wave.

In electrodynamics the strength and direction of an electric field is defined by its electric field vector. In the case of a circularly polarized wave, as seen in the accompanying animation, the tip of the electric field vector, at a given point in space, describes a circle as time progresses. At any instant of time, the electric field vector of the wave describes a helix along the direction of propagation. A circularly polarized wave can be in one of two possible states, right circular polarization in which the electric field vector rotates in a right-hand sense with respect to the direction of propagation, and left circular polarization in which the vector rotates in a left-hand sense.

Circular polarization is a limiting case of the more general condition of elliptical polarization. The other special case is the easier-to-understand linear polarization.

The phenomenon of polarization arises as a consequence of the fact that light behaves as a two-dimensional transverse wave.

Degree of polarization

Degree of polarization (DOP) is a quantity used to describe the portion of an electromagnetic wave which is polarized. A perfectly polarized wave has a DOP of 100%, whereas an unpolarized wave has a DOP of 0%. A wave which is partially polarized, and therefore can be represented by a superposition of a polarized and unpolarized component, will have a DOP somewhere in between 0 and 100%. DOP is calculated as the fraction of the total power that is carried by the polarised component of the wave.

DOP can be used to map the strain field in materials when considering the DOP of the photoluminescence. The polarization of the photoluminescence is related to the strain in a material by way of the given material's photoelasticity tensor.

DOP is also visualized using the Poincaré sphere representation of a polarized beam. In this representation, DOP is equal to the length of the vector measured from the center of the sphere.

Density matrix

A density matrix is a matrix that describes the statistical state of a system in quantum mechanics. The density matrix is especially helpful for dealing with mixed states, which consist of a statistical ensemble of several different quantum systems. The opposite of a mixed state is a pure state. State vectors, also called kets, describe only pure states, whereas a density matrix can describe both pure and mixed states.

Describing a quantum state by its density matrix is a fully general alternative formalism to describing a quantum state by its ket (state vector) or by its statistical ensemble of kets. However, in practice, it is often most convenient to use density matrices for calculations involving mixed states, and to use kets for calculations involving only pure states.

The density matrix is the quantum-mechanical analogue to a phase-space probability measure (probability distribution of position and momentum) in classical statistical mechanics.

Mixed states arise in situations where the experimenter does not know which particular states are being manipulated. Examples include a system in thermal equilibrium at a temperature above absolute zero, or a system with an uncertain or randomly varying preparation history (so one does not know which pure state the system is in). Also, if a quantum system has two or more subsystems that are entangled, then each subsystem must be treated as a mixed state even if the complete system is in a pure state. The density matrix is also a crucial tool in quantum decoherence theory.

The density matrix is a representation of a linear operator called the density operator. The density matrix is obtained from the density operator by choice of basis in the underlying space. In practice, the terms density matrix and density operator are often used interchangeably. Both matrix and operator are self-adjoint (or Hermitian), positive semi-definite, of trace one, and may

be infinite-dimensional.

Eilhard Wiedemann

Eilhard Ernst Gustav Wiedemann (1 August 1852, Berlin – 7 January 1928, Erlangen) was a German physicist and historian of science. He was the son of physicist Gustav Heinrich Wiedemann (1826–1899), and an older brother to Egyptologist Alfred Wiedemann (1856–1936).

He studied physics at the Universities of Heidelberg and Leipzig, obtaining his doctorate in 1872 with the thesis "Über die elliptische Polarisation und ihre Beziehung zu den Oberflächenfarben der Körper (On the elliptical polarization of light and its relation to surface color). From 1878 to 1886, he was an associate professor of physics at Leipzig, afterwards relocating to the University of Erlangen as a full professor (1886–1926).In addition to his duties as a physicist, he was a prolific author of works involving "history of science" themes, in particular, science as it pertained to Arab traditions.


In mathematics, an ellipse is a curve in a plane surrounding two focal points such that the sum of the distances to the two focal points is constant for every point on the curve. As such, it is a generalization of a circle, which is a special type of an ellipse having both focal points at the same location. The elongation of an ellipse is represented by its eccentricity, which for an ellipse can be any number from 0 (the limiting case of a circle) to arbitrarily close to but less than 1.

Ellipses are the closed type of conic section: a plane curve resulting from the intersection of a cone by a plane (see figure to the right). Ellipses have many similarities with the other two forms of conic sections: parabolas and hyperbolas, both of which are open and unbounded. The cross section of a cylinder is an ellipse, unless the section is parallel to the axis of the cylinder.

Analytically, an ellipse may also be defined as the set of points such that the ratio of the distance of each point on the curve from a given point (called a focus or focal point) to the distance from that same point on the curve to a given line (called the directrix) is a constant. This ratio is the above-mentioned eccentricity of the ellipse.

An ellipse may also be defined analytically as the set of points for each of which the sum of its distances to two foci is a fixed number.

Ellipses are common in physics, astronomy and engineering. For example, the orbit of each planet in the solar system is approximately an ellipse with the barycenter of the planet–Sun pair at one of the focal points. The same is true for moons orbiting planets and all other systems having two astronomical bodies. The shapes of planets and stars are often well described by ellipsoids. Ellipses also arise as images of a circle under parallel projection and the bounded cases of perspective projection, which are simply intersections of the projective cone with the plane of projection. It is also the simplest Lissajous figure formed when the horizontal and vertical motions are sinusoids with the same frequency. A similar effect leads to elliptical polarization of light in optics.

The name, ἔλλειψις (élleipsis, "omission"), was given by Apollonius of Perga in his Conics, emphasizing the connection of the curve with "application of areas".

Fresnel rhomb

A Fresnel rhomb is an optical prism that introduces a 90° phase difference between two perpendicular components of polarization, by means of two total internal reflections. If the incident beam is linearly polarized at 45° to the plane of incidence and reflection, the emerging beam is circularly polarized, and vice versa. If the incident beam is linearly polarized at some other inclination, the emerging beam is elliptically polarized with one principal axis in the plane of reflection, and vice versa. Thus the rhomb functions as if it were a wideband quarter-wave plate: whereas a birefringent quarter-wave plate introduces a 90° phase difference for a single wavelength of light, the phase difference introduced by the rhomb depends only on its refractive index, which typically varies only slightly over the visible range of wavelengths (see Dispersion). The material of which the rhomb is made (typically glass) is specifically not birefringent.

The rhomb usually takes the form of a right parallelepiped — that is, a right parallelogram-based prism. If the incident ray is perpendicular to one of the smaller rectangular faces, the angle of incidence and reflection at the next face is equal to the acute angle of the parallelogram. This angle is chosen so that each reflection introduces a phase difference of 45° between the components polarized parallel and perpendicular to the plane of reflection. For a given, sufficiently high refractive index, there are two angles meeting this criterion; for example, an index of 1.5 requires an angle of 50.2° or 53.3°.

The Fresnel rhomb is named after its inventor, the French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel invented the rhomb in stages between 1817  and 1823, during which time he deployed it in crucial experiments which led to his successful theory of light as a transverse wave.

Index of physics articles (E)

The index of physics articles is split into multiple pages due to its size.

To navigate by individual letter use the table of contents below.

Index of wave articles

This is a list of Wave topics.

Jules Jamin

Jules Célestin Jamin (31 May 1818, Termes, Ardennes – 12 February 1886) was a French physicist. He was professor of physics at École Polytechnique from 1852 to 1881 and received the Rumford Medal in 1858 for his work on light. He improved Brewster's inclined interference plates with the development of the Jamin interferometer.

Linear polarization

In electrodynamics, linear polarization or plane polarization of electromagnetic radiation is a confinement of the electric field vector or magnetic field vector to a given plane along the direction of propagation. See polarization and plane of polarization for more information.

The orientation of a linearly polarized electromagnetic wave is defined by the direction of the electric field vector. For example, if the electric field vector is vertical (alternately up and down as the wave travels) the radiation is said to be vertically polarized.

OPTOS formalism

OPTOS (optical properties of textured optical sheets) is a simulation formalism for determining optical properties of sheets with plane-parallel structured interfaces. The method is versatile as interface structures of different optical regimes, e.g. geometrical and wave optics, can be included. It is very efficient due to the re-usability of the calculated light redistribution properties of the individual interfaces. It has so far been mainly used to model optical properties of solar cells and solar modules but it is also applicable for example to LEDs or OLEDs with light extraction structures.


Optics is the branch of physics that studies the behaviour and properties of light, including its interactions with matter and the construction of instruments that use or detect it. Optics usually describes the behaviour of visible, ultraviolet, and infrared light. Because light is an electromagnetic wave, other forms of electromagnetic radiation such as X-rays, microwaves, and radio waves exhibit similar properties.Most optical phenomena can be accounted for using the classical electromagnetic description of light. Complete electromagnetic descriptions of light are, however, often difficult to apply in practice. Practical optics is usually done using simplified models. The most common of these, geometric optics, treats light as a collection of rays that travel in straight lines and bend when they pass through or reflect from surfaces. Physical optics is a more comprehensive model of light, which includes wave effects such as diffraction and interference that cannot be accounted for in geometric optics. Historically, the ray-based model of light was developed first, followed by the wave model of light. Progress in electromagnetic theory in the 19th century led to the discovery that light waves were in fact electromagnetic radiation.

Some phenomena depend on the fact that light has both wave-like and particle-like properties. Explanation of these effects requires quantum mechanics. When considering light's particle-like properties, the light is modelled as a collection of particles called "photons". Quantum optics deals with the application of quantum mechanics to optical systems.

Optical science is relevant to and studied in many related disciplines including astronomy, various engineering fields, photography, and medicine (particularly ophthalmology and optometry). Practical applications of optics are found in a variety of technologies and everyday objects, including mirrors, lenses, telescopes, microscopes, lasers, and fibre optics.

Photon polarization

Photon polarization is the quantum mechanical description of the classical polarized sinusoidal plane electromagnetic wave. An individual photon

can be described as having right or left circular polarization, or a superposition of the two. Equivalently, a photon can be described as having horizontal or vertical linear polarization, or a superposition of the two.

The description of photon polarization contains many of the physical concepts and much of the mathematical machinery of more involved quantum descriptions, such as the quantum mechanics of an electron in a potential well. Polarization is an example of a qubit degree of freedom, which forms a fundamental basis for an understanding of more complicated quantum phenomena. Much of the mathematical machinery of quantum mechanics, such as state vectors, probability amplitudes, unitary operators, and Hermitian operators, emerge naturally from the classical Maxwell's equations in the description. The quantum polarization state vector for the photon, for instance, is identical with the Jones vector, usually used to describe the polarization of a classical wave. Unitary operators emerge from the classical requirement of the conservation of energy of a classical wave propagating through lossless media that alter the polarization state of the wave. Hermitian operators then follow for infinitesimal transformations of a classical polarization state.

Many of the implications of the mathematical machinery are easily verified experimentally. In fact, many of the experiments can be performed with two pairs (or one broken pair) of polaroid sunglasses.

The connection with quantum mechanics is made through the identification of a minimum packet size, called a photon, for energy in the electromagnetic field. The identification is based on the theories of Planck and the interpretation of those theories by Einstein. The correspondence principle then allows the identification of momentum and angular momentum (called spin), as well as energy, with the photon.

Polarization (waves)

Polarization (also polarisation) is a property applying to transverse waves that specifies the geometrical orientation of the oscillations. In a transverse wave, the direction of the oscillation is perpendicular to the direction of motion of the wave. A simple example of a polarized transverse wave is vibrations traveling along a taut string (see image); for example, in a musical instrument like a guitar string. Depending on how the string is plucked, the vibrations can be in a vertical direction, horizontal direction, or at any angle perpendicular to the string. In contrast, in longitudinal waves, such as sound waves in a liquid or gas, the displacement of the particles in the oscillation is always in the direction of propagation, so these waves do not exhibit polarization. Transverse waves that exhibit polarization include electromagnetic waves such as light and radio waves, gravitational waves, and transverse sound waves (shear waves) in solids. In some types of transverse waves, the wave displacement is limited to a single direction, so these also do not exhibit polarization; for example, in surface waves in liquids (gravity waves), the wave displacement of the particles is always in a vertical plane.

An electromagnetic wave such as light consists of a coupled oscillating electric field and magnetic field which are always perpendicular; by convention, the "polarization" of electromagnetic waves refers to the direction of the electric field. In linear polarization, the fields oscillate in a single direction. In circular or elliptical polarization, the fields rotate at a constant rate in a plane as the wave travels. The rotation can have two possible directions; if the fields rotate in a right hand sense with respect to the direction of wave travel, it is called right circular polarization, or, if the fields rotate in a left hand sense, it is called left circular polarization.

Light or other electromagnetic radiation from many sources, such as the sun, flames, and incandescent lamps, consists of short wave trains with an equal mixture of polarizations; this is called unpolarized light. Polarized light can be produced by passing unpolarized light through a polarizer, which allows waves of only one polarization to pass through. The most common optical materials (such as glass) are isotropic and do not affect the polarization of light passing through them; however, some materials—those that exhibit birefringence, dichroism, or optical activity—can change the polarization of light. Some of these are used to make polarizing filters. Light is also partially polarized when it reflects from a surface.

According to quantum mechanics, electromagnetic waves can also be viewed as streams of particles called photons. When viewed in this way, the polarization of an electromagnetic wave is determined by a quantum mechanical property of photons called their spin. A photon has one of two possible spins: it can either spin in a right hand sense or a left hand sense about its direction of travel. Circularly polarized electromagnetic waves are composed of photons with only one type of spin, either right- or left-hand. Linearly polarized waves consist of photons that are in a superposition of right and left circularly polarized states, with equal amplitude and phases synchronized to give oscillation in a plane.Polarization is an important parameter in areas of science dealing with transverse waves, such as optics, seismology, radio, and microwaves. Especially impacted are technologies such as lasers, wireless and optical fiber telecommunications, and radar.

Polarization controller

A polarization controller is an optical device which allows one to modify the polarization state of light.

Sinusoidal plane-wave solutions of the electromagnetic wave equation

Sinusoidal plane-wave solutions are particular solutions to the electromagnetic wave equation.

The general solution of the electromagnetic wave equation in homogeneous, linear, time-independent media can be written as a linear superposition of plane-waves of different frequencies and polarizations.

The treatment in this article is classical but, because of the generality of Maxwell's equations for electrodynamics, the treatment can be converted into the quantum mechanical treatment with only a reinterpretation of classical quantities (aside from the quantum mechanical treatment needed for charge and current densities).

The reinterpretation is based on the theories of Max Planck and the interpretations by Albert Einstein of those theories and of other experiments. The quantum generalization of the classical treatment can be found in the articles on Photon polarization and Photon dynamics in the double-slit experiment.

Spin angular momentum of light

The spin angular momentum of light (SAM) is the component of angular momentum of light that is associated with the quantum spin and the wave's circular or elliptical polarization.


A waveplate or retarder is an optical device that alters the polarization state of a light wave travelling through it. Two common types of waveplates are the half-wave plate, which shifts the polarization direction of linearly polarized light, and the quarter-wave plate, which converts linearly polarized light into circularly polarized light and vice versa. A quarter-wave plate can be used to produce elliptical polarization as well.

Waveplates are constructed out of a birefringent material (such as quartz or mica), for which the index of refraction is different for light linearly polarized along one or the other of two certain perpendicular crystal axes. The behavior of a waveplate (that is, whether it is a half-wave plate, a quarter-wave plate, etc.) depends on the thickness of the crystal, the wavelength of light, and the variation of the index of refraction. By appropriate choice of the relationship between these parameters, it is possible to introduce a controlled phase shift between the two polarization components of a light wave, thereby altering its polarization.A common use of waveplates—particularly the sensitive-tint (full-wave) and quarter-wave plates—is in optical mineralogy. Addition of plates between the polarizers of a petrographic microscope makes easier the optical identification of minerals in thin sections of rocks, in particular by allowing deduction of the shape and orientation of the optical indicatrices within the visible crystal sections. This alignment can allow discrimination between minerals which otherwise appear very similar in plane polarized and cross polarized light.

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