1. n. [Geophysics]
The splitting of an incident wave into two waves of different velocities and orthogonal polarizations. Birefringence occurs in optical mineralogy (see petrography) when plane-polarized light passes through an anisotropic mineral and emerges as two rays traveling at different speeds, the difference between which is characteristic of a mineral.
In seismology, incident S-waves can exhibit birefringence as they split into a quasi-shear and a pure-shear wave. Although birefringence was first described by Danish physician Erasmus Bartholin (1625 to 1698) in crystals in 1669, the phenomenon was not fully understood until French physicist Etienne-Louis Malus (1775 to 1812) described polarized light in 1808.
Synonyms: double refraction