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Property of certain types of electromagnetic radiation in which the direction and magnitude of the vibrating electric field are related in a specified way. The electric vector representing the magnitude and direction of the electric field in a wave of light is perpendicular to the direction in which the wave is moving. Unpolarized light consists of waves moving in the same direction with their electric vectors pointing in random orientations about the axis of propagation. Plane-polarized light consists only of waves that vibrate in one direction. In circular polarization the electric vector rotates about the propagation direction. Light may be polarized by reflection or by passing it through polarizing filters, such as certain crystals, that transmit vibrations in one plane but not in others. Polarized light has useful applications in crystallography, liquid-crystal displays, optical filters, and the identification of optically active chemical compounds.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on polarization, visit Britannica.com.