A depolarizer as a possible precise sunstone for Viking navigation by polarized skylight

Guy Ropars, Gabriel Gorre, Albert Le Floch, Jay Enoch, Vasudevan Lakshminarayanan


Viking navigation from Norway to America in the northern latitudes remains a mystery for physicists, historians and archaeologists. Polarimetric methods using absorbing dichroic crystals as polarizers to detect a hidden Sun direction using the polarized skylight have led to controversies. Indeed, these techniques may lack in sensitivity, especially when the degree of polarization is low. Here, we demonstrate theoretically and experimentally that using the transparent common Iceland spar as a depolarizer, the Vikings could have performed a precise navigation under different conditions. Indeed, when simply rotated, such a birefringent crystal can completely depolarize, at the so-called isotropy point, any partially polarized state of light, allowing us to guess the direction of the Sun. By equalizing the intensities of the ordinary and extraordinary beams at the isotropy point, we show that the Sun direction can be determined easily, thanks to a simple sensitive differential two-image observation. A precision of a few degrees could be reached even under dark crepuscular conditions. The exciting recent discovery of such an Iceland spar in the Alderney Elizabethan ship that sank two centuries before the introduction of the polarization of light in optics may support the use of the calcite crystal for navigation purposes.

  • Received June 9, 2011.
  • Accepted October 3, 2011.
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