Stokes V – The Lost Parameter

Some years ago I went to a seminar on the design of an experiment to measure the polarization of the cosmic microwave background. At the end of the talk I asked what seemed to me to be an innocent question. The point of my question was the speaker had focussed entirely on measuring the intensity of the radiation (I) and the two Stokes Parameters that measure linear polarization of the radiation (usually called Q and U). How difficult, I asked, would it be to measure the remaining Stokes parameter V (which quantifies circular polarization)?

There was a sharp intake of breath among the audience and the speaker responded with a curt “the cosmic microwave background is not circularly polarized”. It is true that in the standard cosmological theory the microwave background is produced by Thomson scattering in the early Universe which produces partial linear polarization, so that Q and U are non-zero, but not circular polarization so V=0. However, I had really asked my question because I had an idea that it might be worth measuring V (or at least putting an upper limit on it) in order to assess the level of instrumental systematics (which are a serious issue with polarization measurements).

I was reminded of this episode when I saw a paper on the arXiv today by Asantha Cooray, Alessandro Melchiorri and Joe Silk which points out that the CMB may well have some level of circular polarization. When light travels through a region containing plasma and a magnetic field, circular polarization can be generated from linear polarization via a process called Faraday conversion. For this to happen, the polarization vector of the incident radiation (defined by the direction of its E-field) must have non-zero component along the local magnetic field, i.e. the B-field. Charged particles are free to move only along B, so the component of E parallel to B is absorbed and re-emitted by these charges, thus leading to phase difference between it and the component of E orthogonal to B and hence to the circular polarization. This is related to the perhaps more familiar process of Faraday rotation, which causes the plane of linear polarization to rotate when polarized radiation travels through a region containing a magnetic field.

Anyway, here is the abstract of the paper

The primordial anisotropies of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) are linearly polarized via Compton-scattering. The Faraday conversion process during the propagation of polarized CMB photons through regions of the large-scale structure containing magnetized relativistic plasma, such as galaxy clusters, will lead to a circularly polarized contribution. Though the resulting Stokes-V parameter is of order 10-9 at frequencies of 10 GHz, the contribution can potentially reach the total Stokes-U at low frequencies due to the cubic dependence on the wavelength. In future, the detection of circular polarization of CMB can be used as a potential probe of the physical properties associated with relativistic particle populations in large-scale structures.

It’s an interesting idea, but it’s hard for me to judge the feasibility of measuring a value of Stokes V as low as 10-9. Clearly it would only work at frequencies much lower than those probed by current CMB experiments such as BICEP2 (which operates at 150 GHz). Perhaps if the speaker had answered my question all those years ago I’d be in a better position to decide!

One Response to “Stokes V – The Lost Parameter”

  1. Peter,
    As a total amateur, the issue of circular polarization in the CMB is one I have always wondered about, as a way to obtain more information from the CMB, which, after all, has a finite number of useful modes. I have hardly seen any mentions of it, which leads me to think that in grad school they teach people not to waste time thinking about it.

    Apparently PIPER, the balloon experiment, will measure V. It will modulate between Q and V and, separately, between U and V in order to obtain a cleaner decomposition between E and B, (apparently, modulating Q and U can lead to leakage from E to B).
    Obviously this will be clean so long as V=0 or is very small. Otherwise, it will be incredibly exciting. It seams like a great place for an unexpected discovery.
    Even in the boring case of an upper bound, this is an additional experimental constraint, and while not worthy of a Nobel prize, all expected and measurable consequences of our models should be tested.
    -T

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