Friday, May 4, 2012

The Optics of Life

The Optics of Life:  A Biologist's Guide to Light in Nature,  by Sonke Johnsen, superimposed on Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.
The Optics of Life:
A Biologist's Guide to Light in Nature,
by Sonke Johnsen.
As I mentioned two weeks ago, I’ve been reading The Optics of Life: A Biologist’s Guide to Light in Nature, by Sonke Johnsen. The book is delightful, exploring the biological implications of many fascinating phenomena such as scattering, interference, fluorescence, and bioluminescence. To me, The Optics of Life does for light what Life in Moving Fluids does for fluid dynamics; it explains how basic principles of physics apply to the diversity of life. Today, I want to focus on Chapter 8 of Johnsen’s book, about polarization.

The polarization of light is one of those topics Russ Hobbie and I don’t cover in the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology. We only hint at its importance in Chapter 14 about Atoms and Light, when discussing Terahertz radiation.
Classical electromagnetic wave theory is needed to describe the interactions [of Terahertz radiation with the body], and polarization (the orientation of the E vector of the propagating wave) is often important.
Had you asked me two weeks ago why Russ and I skipped polarization, I would have said “because there are so few biological applications.” Johnsen proves me wrong. He writes
As I mentioned earlier, aside from the few people who can see Haidinger’s Brush in the sky, the polarization characteristics of light are invisible to humans. However, a host of animals can detect one or both aspects of linearly polarized light (see Talbot Waterman’s massive review [1981] and Horvath and Varju’s even more massive book [2004] for comprehensive lists of taxa). Arthropods are the big winners here, especially insects, though also most crustaceans and certain spiders and scorpions. In fact, it is unusual to find an insect without polarization sensitivity. Outside the arthropods, the other major polarization-sensitive invertebrates are the cephalopods. Among vertebrates, polarization sensitivity is rarer and more controversial, but has been found in certain fish (primarily trout and Talbot salmon), some migratory birds and a handful of amphibians and reptiles. It is important to realize, though, that there is a serious sampling bias. Testing for polarization sensitivity is difficult and so has usually only been looked for in migratory animals and those known to be especially good at navigation, such as certain desert ants. The true prevalence of polarization sensitivity is unknown.

The ability to sense the polarization of light has been divided into two types. One is known as “polarization sensitivity.” Animals that have polarization sensitivity are not much different from humans wearing Polaroid sunglasses. Polarization affects the intensity of what they see—but without a lot of head-turning and thinking, they cannot reliably determine the angle or degree of polarization or even separate polarization from brightness. The other type is known as “polarization vision.” Animals with polarization vision perceive the angle and degree of polarization as something separate from simple brightness differences. Behaviorally, this means that they can distinguish two lights with different degrees and/or angles of polarization regardless of their relative radiances and colors. This is much like the definition of color vision, which involves the ability to distinguish two lights of differing hue and/or saturation regardless of their relative radiances.
How I’d love to have polarization vision! It would be an entirely new sensory experience. When Dorothy entered the land of Oz, she went from a black and white world to the richness of color. Now imagine a similar experience when going from our drab nonpolarized vision to polarization vision; it would offer a whole new way to view the world; a sixth sense. Alas, not all animals have polarization sensitivity, and even fewer have polarization vision. How these senses work is still unclear.
While polarization sensitivity is certainly rarer among vertebrates [than invertebrates], it does exist… The mechanism of polarization sensitivity in vertebrates remains—along with the basis of animal magnetoreception—one of the two holy grails of sensory biology.
My favorite example discussed by Johnsen is the Mantis shrimp, which can distinguish between left-handed and right-handed circularly polarized light. They do this by passing the light through a biological quarter-wave plate. The quarter-wave plate was one of my favorite topics in my undergraduate optics class. Incoming linearly polarized light is converted into circularly polarizing light by inducing a phase difference of 90 degrees between the two linear components. Similarly, the plate can convert circularly polarized light into linearly polarized light. Circularly polarized light always struck me as somehow magical. You can’t detect it using a sheet of plastic polarizing film, yet it is as fundamental a polarization state for light as is linear polarization. That the Mantis shrimp could make use of a quarter-wave plate to detect circularly polarized light is awesome.

Let me conclude by quoting the first sentence of Johnsen’s introduction to The Optics of Life, which elegantly sums up the book itself.
Of all the remarkable substances of our experience—rain, leaves, baby toes—light is perhaps the most miraculous.

Added note in the evening of May 4: Russ Hobbie reminds me that on the book’s website is text from the first edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology about optics, including much about polarization!


  1. Here is a Physics Girl video that talks about polarization and Haidinger’s Brush: For the record, I couldn't see Haidinger's Brush. :(