The study of the propagation of light, and associated phenomena, in crystalline solids. For a simple cubic crystal the atomic arrangement is such that in each direction through the crystal the crystal presents the same optical appearance. The atoms in anisotropic crystals are closer together in some planes through the material than in others. In anisotropic crystals the optical characteristics are different in different directions. In classical physics the progress of an electromagnetic wave through a material involves the periodic displacement of electrons. In anisotropic substances the forces resisting these displacements depend on the displacement direction. Thus the velocity of a light wave is different in different directions and for different states of polarization. The absorption of the wave may also be different in different directions. See Dichroism, Trichroism
In an isotropic medium the light from a point source spreads out in a spherical shell. The light from a point source embedded in an anisotropic crystal spreads out in two wave surfaces, one of which travels at a faster rate than the other. The polarization of the light varies from point to point over each wave surface, and in any particular direction from the source the polarization of the two surfaces is opposite. The characteristics of these surfaces can be determined experimentally by making measurements on a given crystal.
In the most general case of a transparent anisotropic medium, the dielectric constant is different along each of three orthogonal axes. This means that when the light vector is oriented along each direction, the velocity of light is different. One method for calculating the behavior of a transparent anisotropic material is through the use of the index ellipsoid, also called the reciprocal ellipsoid, optical indicatrix, or ellipsoid of wave normals. This is the surface obtained by plotting the value of the refractive index in each principal direction for a linearly polarized light vector lying in that direction . The different indices of refraction, or wave velocities associated with a given propagation direction, are then given by sections through the origin of the coordinates in which the index ellipsoid is drawn. These sections are ellipses, and the major and minor axes of the ellipse represent the fast and slow axes for light proceeding along the normal to the plane of the ellipse. The length of the axes represents the refractive indices for the fast and slow wave, respectively. The most asymmetric type of ellipsoid has three unequal axes. It is a general rule in crystallography that no property of a crystal will have less symmetry than the class in which the crystal belongs.
Accordingly, there are many crystals which, for example, have four- or sixfold rotation symmetry about an axis, and for these the index ellipsoid cannot have three unequal axes but is an ellipsoid of revolution. In such a crystal, light will be propagated along this axis as though the crystal were isotropic, and the velocity of propagation will be independent of the state of polarization. The section of the index ellipsoid at right angles to this direction is a circle. Such crystals are called uniaxial and the mathematics of their optical behavior is relatively straightforward.
In crystals of low symmetry the index ellipsoid has three unequal axes. These crystals are termed biaxial and have two directions along which the wave velocity is independent of the polarization direction. These correspond to the two sections of the ellipsoid which are circular. See Crystallography
The normal to a plane wavefront moves with the phase velocity. The Huygens wavelet, which is the light moving out from a point disturbance, will propagate with a ray velocity. Just as the index ellipsoid can be used to compute the phase or wave velocity, so can a ray ellipsoid be used to calculate the ray velocity. The length of the axes of this ellipsoid is given by the velocity of the linearly polarized ray whose electric vector lies in the axis direction. See Phase velocity
The refraction of a light ray on passing through the surface of an anisotropic uniaxial crystal can be calculated with Huygens wavelets in the same manner as in an isotropic material. For the ellipsoidal wavelet this results in an optical behavior which is completely different from that normally associated with refraction. The ray associated with this behavior is termed the extraordinary ray. At a crystal surface where the optic axis is inclined at an angle, a ray of unpolarized light incident normally on the surface is split into two beams: the ordinary ray, which proceeds through the surface without deviation; and the extraordinary ray, which is deviated by an angle determined by a line drawn from the center of one of the Huygens ellipsoidal wavelets to the point at which the ellipsoid is tangent to a line parallel to the surface. The two beams are oppositely linearly polarized.