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Ability of a substance to rotate the plane of polarization of a beam of light passed through it, either as crystals or in solution. Clockwise rotation as one faces the light source is positive, or dextrorotary; counterclockwise rotation negative, or levorotary. Louis Pasteur was the first to recognize that molecules with optical activity are stereoisomers (seeisomerism). Optical isomers occur in pairs that are nonsuperimposable mirror images of one another. They have the same physical properties except for their effect on polarized light; in chemical properties they differ only in their interactions with other stereoisomers (seeasymmetric synthesis).
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on optical activity, visit Britannica.com.