How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Question 338

How do polarizing materials work?
The sheet polarizers that are used in sunglasses or in the demonstrations in class contain molecules that absorb electromagnetic waves of only one polarization. These molecules form long chains that interact with electromagnetic waves only when the electric fields push charge along the lengths of the molecules. In the polarizing sheets, the molecules are all oriented along the same direction so that they all absorb light of the same polarization. The other polarization of light passes through the sheets virtually unscathed. When unpolarized (randomly polarized) light enters one of these sheets, any waves that are polarized along the molecules are absorbed while any that are polarized across the molecules are permitted to pass. About half the light makes it through and that half is polarized across the molecules. If this remaining light is sent through a second polarizing sheet, turned 90° so that the molecules of the second sheet are aligned with the polarization of the light leaving the first sheet, then the remaining light will be absorbed in the second sheet and essentially no light will emerge from the pair of sheets. This arrangement, two polarizers turn 90° with respect to one another, is called "crossed polarizers". It is a useful arrangement for observing materials that rotate polarization by distorting the electric and magnetic fields. If a distorting material is placed between the two crossed polarizers, light from the first polarizer may be altered by the material and thus be able to pass through the second polarizer.

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