Wednesday, June 16, 2010



A light wave is an electromagnetic wave which travels through the vacuum of outer space. Light waves are produced by vibrating electric charges. For our purposes, it is sufficient to merely say that an electromagnetic wave is a transverse wave which has both an electric and a magnetic component.

Let's suppose that we use the customary slinky to model the behavior of an electromagnetic wave. As an electromagnetic wave traveled towards you, then you would observe the vibrations of the slinky occurring in more than one plane of vibration. This is quite different than what you might notice if you were to look along a slinky and observe a slinky wave traveling towards you. Indeed, the coils of the slinky would be vibrating back and forth as the slinky approached; yet these vibrations would occur in a single plane of space. That is, the coils of the slinky might vibrate up and down or left and right. Yet regardless of their direction of vibration, they would be moving along the same linear direction as you sighted along the slinky. If a slinky wave were an electromagnetic wave, then the vibrations of the slinky would occur in multiple planes. Unlike a usual slinky wave, the electric and magnetic vibrations of an electromagnetic wave occur in numerous planes. A light wave which is vibrating in more than one plane is referred to as unpolarized light. Light emitted by the sun, by a lamp in the classroom, or by a candle flame is unpolarized light. Such light waves are created by electric charges which vibrate in a variety of directions, thus creating an electromagnetic wave which vibrates in a variety of directions. This concept of unpolarized light is rather difficult to visualize. In general, it is helpful to picture unpolarized light as a wave which has an average of half its vibrations in a horizontal plane and half of its vibrations in a vertical plane.

It is possible to transform unpolarized light into polarized light. Polarized light waves are light waves in which the vibrations occur in a single plane. The process of transforming unpolarized light into polarized light is known as polarization. There are a variety of methods of polarizing light. The four methods discussed on this page are :

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