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Optical rotation of white light

Anderson, Jason; Gillen, Catherine; Wright, Jacqueline; Adams, Charles S.; Hughes, Ifan G.

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Catherine Gillen

Jacqueline Wright


Plane-polarized monochromatic light is rotated in an optically active medium. The extent of the rotation is wavelength dependent, following an optical rotatory dispersion (ORD) curve. Typically, this phenomenon is studied by using a few discrete wavelengths. Here, we demonstrate optical rotation of white light. Corn syrup is used as the medium as large angles of optical rotation can be generated in compact containers. The Drude expression for ORD and Malus' law are used to predict the spectrum of the light transmitted as a function of the angle between polarizers located on either side of the sample. Despite the transmission spectrum of corn syrup in the absence of polarizers being unremarkable, optical rotation leads to a dramatic change in color because a “notch” is generated in the spectrum of the transmitted light. The extinction region can be translated across the spectrum by rotating the analyzer. The experimentally measured location of the region of maximum extinction and the color of the transmitted light are in excellent qualitative agreement with the predicted values. The experiment is ideal both as a lecture demonstration and for quantitative investigation in an undergraduate laboratory of the spectral distribution of light transmitted by a chiral medium.


Anderson, J., Gillen, C., Wright, J., Adams, C. S., & Hughes, I. G. (2020). Optical rotation of white light. American Journal of Physics, 88(3),

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Dec 6, 2019
Online Publication Date Feb 20, 2020
Publication Date Mar 31, 2020
Deposit Date Feb 27, 2020
Publicly Available Date Feb 20, 2021
Journal American Journal of Physics
Print ISSN 0002-9505
Electronic ISSN 1943-2909
Publisher American Association of Physics Teachers
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 88
Issue 3


Published Journal Article (2.9 Mb)

Copyright Statement
© 2020 American Institute of Physics. This article may be downloaded for personal use only. Any other use requires prior permission of the author and the American Institute of Physics. The following article appeared in Anderson, Jason, Gillen, Catherine, Wright, Jacqueline, Adams, Charles S. & Hughes, Ifan G. (2020). Optical rotation of white light. American Journal of Physics 88(3): 247 and may be found at

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