Thursday, February 28, 2013

How do you teach what polarization is?

Today is Optics Day at CREOL, our annual public open house where we present demonstrations of various optical phenomena and technologies, speakers, and pizza. :)

During this year's Optics Day I am charged with explaining the phenomenon of polarization to visitors. Now, I find polarization incredibly difficult to explain to non-scientists, and here's why: the usual treatment of optical polarization in physics involves describing the direction of the electric field vector of an electromagnetic wave. If I were to start with this definition while speaking with somebody not trained in physics, I would then have to explain electromagnetic waves. This would be followed by an explanation of the equivalence of light and electromagnetic waves, wave phenomena in general, linear, circular and the more general elliptical polarization states, etc. etc. until the poor person who has come to see a cool demonstration and learn something new has completely been befuddled because it takes so much background understanding to comprehend what polarization even means.

This year, I am determined to find an explanation of polarization that is more intuitive to a non-scientist. A rough outline that I intend to give for polarization's foundation in observation goes as follows:

1) Our sense of sight is perhaps the most obvious sense we have. We see objects and from these objects we discern shape, size, color and other properties.

2) There are physical quantities that cannot be sensed by our eyes. For example, flowers have fragrance that our noses can detect. Wind is another example. We feel its effects or we see its effects on other things, but we don't directly see "wind." Therefore, there are physical quantities that cannot be seen but nevertheless may be sensed.

3) There are still more phenomena that exist but cannot be sensed by any of our sense organs. For example, a compass points north because the needle experiences a magnetic force. Additionally, small objects all fall towards the earth because of gravity. Magnetism and gravity require tools that sense things that we cannot: magnetic and gravitational fields. Where our senses fail us, we use tools to measure some quantity.

4) Polarization lies in this last classification of phenomena. It cannot be sensed by us (which isn't strictly true), but can be determined by appropriate tools. These tools are things that are found in nature, like quartz crystals, and man-made objects like polarizers and waveplates.

From this foundation, I will explain some of the consequences of the polarization of light, what it can be used for, and may even digress into the physicist's model if the visitors are interested enough. My hope is to build the concept of polarization up from a basis of observation, not to start with our model first, followed later by how we observe polarization.