This has been bugging me a bit since the BICEP announcement, but if there are any resources that answer my question in a simple way, they've been buried in a slew of over-technical or over-popularized articles; Wikipedia isn't much help either.

It is clear to me that when the CMB is described as having "E modes" and "B modes", some reference is being made to electric and magnetic fields. What is the precise nature of this reference? I suspect it is simply an appeal to the fact that the polarization can be split into a curl-free component, which is the gradient of something, and a divergence-free component, which is the curl of something else, and these are formally analogous to electric and magnetic fields. Calling them that way certainly brings to bear all our intuition from electrostatics and magnetostatics into how such modes can look. Is this suspicion correct? Or is there some actual electric or magnetic field involved (as, for example, in TE modes in a waveguide)?

Secondly, how exactly does one split the polarization field into these components? It's not quite the sort of 3D vector field to which Helmholtz's theorem applies:

  • It is a vector field over a sphere instead of all space. This sphere can be seen as the celestial sphere, or equivalently as the surface of last scattering.

  • It does not automatically have a magnitude on top of its direction, though I suspect one can happily use some measure of the degree of polarization for this. (Is that correct? If so, exactly what measure is used?)

How exactly is the polarization field defined, over what space, and exactly what mathematical machinery is used to split it into E modes and B modes? Are there analogues to the scalar and vector potential? If so, what do they physically represent?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I am fairly certain that your idea is correct. There is a decomposition into divergenceless 'curl- or B-modes' and irrotational 'E-modes'. I don't know much more than that, though. $\endgroup$
    – Danu
    Commented Mar 18, 2014 at 12:02
  • $\begingroup$ I was thinking about asking a variation of this question. My approach would be to say "what are all the possible types of gravity waves?" The field equation's form of gravity, $g_{\mu \nu}$, has 4x4=16 degrees of freedom, I think. With so many degrees of freedom, it seems obviously possible that polarization can get thrown into the effects of the waves. The hard part is to classify and understand the types of these waves relative the classical waves we're familiar with. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 18, 2014 at 12:03
  • $\begingroup$ @AlanSE there are several symmetries etc. which get rid of most degrees of freedom. For instance, Weinberg's book on Cosmology has a good discussion on this (chapter 5). $\endgroup$
    – Danu
    Commented Mar 18, 2014 at 12:04
  • $\begingroup$ Have a look at Luboš' blog post and references therein. $\endgroup$
    – Pulsar
    Commented Mar 18, 2014 at 12:41
  • $\begingroup$ @SRS Ask that separately. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 9, 2018 at 21:09

2 Answers 2


Planck, BICEP, et al are all detecting electromagnetic radiation, but the "E-modes" and "B-modes" refer to polarization characteristics of this radiation, not the actual electric and magnetic fields. As you surmised, the names derive from an analogy to the decomposition of a vector field into curl-less (here "E" for electric or "G" for gradient) and divergence-less ("B" for magnetic or "C" for curl) components, as follows...

The first step is the measurement of the standard Stokes parameters $Q$ and $U$. In general, the polarization of monochromatic light is completely described via four Stokes parameters, which form a (non-orthonormal) vector space when the various waves are incoherent. For light propagating in the $z$ direction, with electric field:

$$ E_x = a_x(t) \cos(\omega_0 t - \theta_x (t)) \, \, , \quad E_y = a_y(t) \cos(\omega_0 t - \theta_y (t)) $$

the Stokes parameters are:

  • $ I = \langle a_x^2 \rangle + \langle a_y^2 \rangle $ , intensity
  • $ Q = \langle a_x^2 \rangle - \langle a_y^2 \rangle $ , polarization along $x$ (Q>0) or $y$ (Q<0) axes
  • $ U = \langle 2 a_x a_y \cos(\theta_x - \theta_y) \rangle $ , polarization at $\pm 45$ degrees
  • $ V = \langle 2 a_x a_y \sin(\theta_x - \theta_y) \rangle $ , left- or right-hand circular polarization

In cosmology, no circular polarization is expected, so $V$ is not considered. In addition, normalization of $Q$ and $U$ is traditionally with respect to the mean temperature $T_0$ instead of intensity $I$.

The definitions of $Q$ and $U$ imply that they transform under a rotation $\alpha$ around the $z$-axis according to: $$ Q' = Q \cos (2 \alpha) + U \sin (2 \alpha) $$ $$ U' = -Q \sin (2 \alpha) + U \cos (2 \alpha) $$

These parameters transform, not like a vector, but like a two-dimensional, second rank symmetric trace-free (STF) polarization tensor $\mathcal{P}_{ab}$. In spherical polar coordinates $(\theta, \phi)$, the metric tensor $g$ and polarization tensor are:

$$ g_{ab} = \left( \begin{array}{cc} 1 & 0 \\ 0 & \sin^2 \theta \end{array} \right) $$ $$ \mathcal{P}_{ab}(\mathbf{\hat{n}}) =\frac{1}{2} \left( \begin{array}{cc} Q(\mathbf{\hat{n}}) & -U(\mathbf{\hat{n}}) \sin \theta \\ -U(\mathbf{\hat{n}}) \sin \theta & -Q(\mathbf{\hat{n}})\sin^2 \theta \end{array} \right) $$

As advertised, this matrix is symmetric and trace-free (recall the trace is $g^{ab} \mathcal{P}_{ab}$).

Now, just as a scalar function can be expanded in terms of spherical harmonics $Y_{lm}(\mathbf{\hat{n}})$, the polarization tensor (with its two independent parameters $Q$ and $U$) can be expanded in terms of two sets of orthonormal tensor harmonics:

$$ \frac{\mathcal{P}_{ab}(\mathbf{\hat{n}})}{T_0} = \sum_{l=2}^{\infty} \sum_{m=-l}^{l} \left[ a_{(lm)}^G Y_{(lm)ab}^G(\mathbf{\hat{n}}) + a_{(lm)}^C Y_{(lm)ab}^C(\mathbf{\hat{n}}) \right]$$

where it turns out that:

$$ Y_{(lm)ab}^G = N_l \left( Y_{(lm):ab} - \frac{1}{2} g_{ab} {Y_{(lm):c}}^c\right) $$ $$ Y_{(lm)ab}^C = \frac{N_l}{2} \left( Y_{(lm):ac} {\epsilon^c}_b + Y_{(lm):bc} {\epsilon^c}_a \right)$$

where $\epsilon_{ab}$ is the completely antisymmetric tensor, "$:$" denotes covariant differentiation on the 2-sphere, and

$$ N_l = \sqrt{\frac{2(l-2)!}{(l+2)!}} $$

The "G" ("E") basis tensors are "like" gradients, and the "C" ("B") like curls.

It appears that cosmological perturbations are either scalar (e.g. energy density perturbations) or tensor (gravitational waves). Crucially, scalar perturbations produce only E-mode (G-type) polarization, so evidence of a cosmological B-mode is (Nobel-worthy) evidence of gravitational waves. (Note, however, that Milky-Way "dust" polarization (the "foreground" to cosmologists) can produce B-modes, so it must be well-understood and subtracted to obtain the cosmological signal.)

An excellent reference is Kamionkowski. See also Hu.


Perhaps this defintion?

The electric (E) and magnetic (B) modes are distinguished by their behavior under a parity transformation n → -n. E modes have (-1)l parity and B modes have (-1)l+1, here (l=2, m=0), even and odd respectively. The local distinction between the two is that the polarization direction is aligned with the principal axes of the polarization amplitude for E and crossed (45 degrees) for B. Dotted lines represent a sign reversal in the polarization.

This is from http://background.uchicago.edu/~whu/polar/webversion/node8.html , which has some decent diagrams showing the polarization and field orientations.


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