Arbitrary monochromatic optical waves, as from a laser, may be represented as plane waves or as sums of plane waves.  A plane wave consists of coupled electric and magnetic field components which are transverse to each other and to the direction of propagation.  The magnitude and phase of the electric field and the propagation vector k define a single plane wave.  For isotropic media, the direction k/|k| and magnitude of the propagation vector |k| = 2pv ( µrer ) /¿ specify the direction of energy flow and wavelength, respectively.  The media will determine the speed of propagation and an interface between two media will effect the direction of propagation.  The most common propagation media is a isotropic dielectric with negligible conductivity (s = o) and nonmagnetic behavior (µr = 1).  The media is then characterized by the relative permittivity eror equivalently by the index of refraction n = ver. Click on the image to see a demonstration



The fundamental concepts describing optical plane waves are summarized in the following tutorial modules.


  • Propagation – Direction, optical path length, and attenuation
  • Polarization – Definition, types, and plane of incidence
  • Interface Relations – Refraction, reflection, and special cases
  • Interference – Interference, two-beam interferometers, and multiple-beam interferometers