Circular (and elliptical) polarization is possible because the propagating electric (and magnetic) fields can have two orthogonal components with independent amplitudes and phases (and the same frequency).
A circularly polarized wave may be resolved into two linearly polarized waves, of equal amplitude, in phase quadrature (90 degrees apart) and with their planes of polarization at right angles to each other.
Circular polarization may be referred to as right or left, depending on the direction in which the electric field vector rotates. Unfortunately, two opposing historical conventions exist. In physics, astronomy, and optics, polarization is defined as seen from the receiver, such as a telescope or radio telescope. By this definition, if you could stop time and look at the electric field along the beam, it would trace a helix which is the same shape as the same-handed screw. For example, right circular polarization produces a right threaded (or forward threaded) screw. In electrical engineering, however, it is more common to define polarization as seen from the source, such as from a transmitting antenna. In the U.S., Federal Standard 1037C also defines the handedness of circular polarization in this manner, or as looking in the direction of propagation. To avoid confusion, it is good practice to specify "as seen from the receiver" (or transmitter) when discussing polarization matters.
It was recently discovered that mantis shrimp can see circularly polarized light http://optics.org/cws/article/research/34196.
The term "circular polarization" is often used erroneously to describe mixed polarity signals used mostly in FM radio (87.5 to 108.0 MHz), where a vertical and a horizontal component are propagated simultaneously by a single or a combined array. This has the effect of producing greater penetration into buildings and difficult reception areas than a signal with just one plane of polarization.
Circular dichroism (CD), is the differential absorption of left- and right-handed circularly polarized light. Circular dichroism is the basis of a form of spectroscopy that can be used to determine the optical isomerism and secondary structure of molecules.
In general, this phenomenon will be exhibited in absorption bands of any optically active molecule. As a consequence, circular dichroism is exhibited by biological molecules, because of the dextrorotary (e.g. some sugars) and levorotary (e.g. some amino acids) molecules they contain. Noteworthy as well is that a secondary structure will also impart a distinct CD to its respective molecules. Therefore, the alpha helix, beta sheet and random coil regions of proteins and the double helix of nucleic acids have CD spectral signatures representative of their structures.
where k is the wavenumber,
is the amplitude of the field and
is the Jones vector in the x-y plane.
If is rotated by radians with respect to and the x amplitude equals the y amplitude the wave is circularly polarized. The Jones vector is
where the plus sign indicates right circular polarization and the minus sign indicates left circular polarization. In the case of circular polarization, the electric field vector of constant magnitude rotates in the x-y plane.
If unit vectors are defined such that
then the polarization state can written in the "R-L basis" as