Polarization (also polarisation) is a property applying to transverse waves that specify the geometrical orientation of the oscillations. In a transverse wave, the direction of the oscillation is perpendicular to the direction of motion of the wave. A simple example of a polarized transverse wave is vibrations traveling along a taut string (see image); for example, in a musical instrument like a guitar string. Depending on how the string is plucked, the vibrations can be in a vertical direction, horizontal direction, or at any angle perpendicular to the string. In contrast, in longitudinal waves, such as sound waves in a liquid or gas, the displacement of the particles in the oscillation is always in the direction of propagation, so these waves do not exhibit polarization. Transverse waves that exhibit polarization include electromagnetic waves such as light and radio waves, gravitational waves, and transverse sound waves (shear waves) in solids.
An electromagnetic wave such as light consists of a coupled oscillating electric field and magnetic field which are always perpendicular to each other; by convention, the "polarization" of electromagnetic waves refers to the direction of the electric field. In linear polarization, the fields oscillate in a single direction. In circular or elliptical polarization, the fields rotate at a constant rate in a plane as the wave travels. The rotation can have two possible directions; if the fields rotate in a right-hand sense with respect to the direction of wave travel, it is called right circular polarization, while if the fields rotate in a left-hand sense, it is called left circular polarization.
Light or other electromagnetic radiation from many sources, such as the sun, flames, and incandescent lamps, consists of short wave trains with an equal mixture of polarization; this is called unpolarized light. Polarized light can be produced by passing unpolarized light through a polarizer, which allows waves of only one polarization to pass through. The most common optical materials (such as glass) are isotropic and do not affect the polarization of light passing through them; however, some materials—those that exhibit birefringence, dichroism, or optical activity—can change the polarization of light. Some of these are used to make polarizing filters. Light is also partially polarized when it reflects from a surface.
According to quantum mechanics, electromagnetic waves can also be viewed as streams of particles called photons. When viewed in this way, the polarization of an electromagnetic wave is determined by a quantum mechanical property of photons called their spin. A photon has one of two possible spins: it can either spin in a right-hand sense or a left-hand sense about its direction of travel. Circularly polarized electromagnetic waves are composed of photons with only one type of spin, either right- or left hand. Linearly polarized waves consist of photons that are in a superposition of right and left circularly polarized states, with equal amplitude and phases synchronized to give oscillation in a plane.
Polarization is an important parameter in areas of science dealing with transverse waves, such as optics, seismology, radio, and microwaves. Especially impacted are technologies such as lasers, wireless and optical fiber telecommunications, and radar.