Light Science pp 149-170 | Cite as

Polarized Light

  • Thomas D. RossingEmail author
  • Christopher J. Chiaverina


If the end of a stretched rope is shaken up and down, as shown in Fig.  2.1, a train of transverse waves will travel down the rope.


Glossary of Terms


A polarizer used to analyze polarized light or the second of two polarizers used to control the intensity of transmitted light.


Splitting of light into two rays by anisotropic materials having two indices of refraction. Double refraction.

circularly polarizedlight

Light composed of two waves of equal amplitude, differing in phase by 90°.

Brewster’s angle

Angle of incidence (or reflection) for which the reflected light is totally polarized.


Materials that absorb light whose E-field vibrations are in a certain direction.


Light with an E-field vibration that rotates as the light travels through space.

half-wave plate

Birefringent material of the right thickness to retard one ray 180° with respect to the other so that the plane of polarization is rotated.

Malus’s law

Intensity of polarized light transmitted through an analyzer is the incident intensity times cos2 θ, where θ is the angle between the axes of the polarizer and analyzer.

Nicol prism

A calcite prism used to produce or analyze polarized light. Two halves of a calcite crystal are cemented together with Canada balsam.

optical activity

Rotation of the plane of polarization of transmitted light (clockwise in some materials, counterclockwise in others).


Some materials become birefringent under stress.


Transverse waves (such as light) with vibrations oriented in one plane.


Used to polarize light, or the first of two polarizing filters used to control light intensity.


Synthetic polarizing material developed by Edwin Land that consists of long chains of molecules that absorb light polarized in a certain plane.

quarter-wave plate

Birefringent material of the right thickness to retard the phase of one ray by 90° with respect to the other so that plane polarized light is changed to elliptical and vice versa.


Atmospheric scattering of sunlight, which depends on the size of the scattering molecules and the wavelength of the light.

wave plate orretarder

A thin plate of a birefringent material with the optic axis parallel to the surface so that it transmits waves having their E-fields parallel and perpendicular to the optic axis at different speeds.

Further Reading

  1. Falk, D. S., Brill, D. R., & Stork, D. G. (1986). Seeing the Light. New York: John Wiley & Sons.Google Scholar
  2. Hewitt, P. G. (2015). Conceptual Physics, 12th ed. Boston: Pearson.Google Scholar
  3. Jewett, J. W. (1994). Physics Begins with an M … Mysteries, Magic and Myth. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Thomas D. Rossing
    • 1
    Email author
  • Christopher J. Chiaverina
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Music, Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA)Stanford UniversityStanfordUSA
  2. 2.New Trier Township High SchoolWinnetkaUSA

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