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The sensitivity of the human eye to the polarisation of light

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact John Mollon.

From the zenith of the clear blue sky at sunset, to the ubiquitous liquid crystal display (LCD), sources of polarised light are everywhere. Yet our ability to observe the polarisation state of light with the naked eye alone is not widely known. When exposed to a source of linearly polarised light the observer sees a faint visual phenomenon consisting of a yellow hourglass flanked by blue-purple regions. This image extends for a few degrees around the fixation point and fades in a couple of seconds if the angle of polarisation is not altered. The phenomenon is referred to as ‘Haidinger’s brush’ after the mineralogist who first reported it.

Whilst considerable effort has been directed toward testing polarization vision in other animals, the limits of human polarisation sensitivity remain largely uncharacterized and the origin of the effect is subject to dispute. In this talk I will describe the physical mechanisms that have been proposed to explain Haidinger’s brush, consider their plausibility and present our initial attempts at characterising the human polarisation sensitivity threshold.

This talk is part of the Craik Club series.

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