Circular polarization

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In electrodynamics, circular polarization[1] of an electromagnetic wave is a polarization where the tip of the electric field vector, at a fixed point in space, describes a circle as time progresses. If the wave is frozen in time the electric field vectors describe a helix along the direction of propagation. 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.


General description

On the right is an illustration of the electric field vectors of a circularly polarized electromagnetic wave.[2] The electric field vectors have a constant magnitude but their direction changes in a rotary manner. Given that this is a plane wave, each vector represents the magnitude and direction of the electric field for an entire plane that is perpendicular to the axis. Specifically, given that this is a circularly polarized plane wave, these vectors indicate that the electric field, from plane to plane, has a constant strength while its direction steadily rotates. Using the convention of the physics community, it is considered to be right-hand, clockwise circularly polarized. Notice that the helix forms a right-handed screw in space. Since this is an electromagnetic wave each electric field vector has a corresponding, but not illustrated, magnetic field vector that is at a right angle to the electric field vector and proportional in magnitude to it. As a result, the magnetic field vectors would trace out a second helix if displayed.
Circular polarization is often encountered in the field of optics and in this section, the electromagnetic wave will be simply referred to as light.

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