On the natures of the spin and orbital parts of optical angular momentum

Stephen M Barnett, L Allen, Robert P Cameron, Claire R Gilson, Miles J Padgett, Fiona C Speirits, Alison M Yao

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134 Citations (Scopus)
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The modern field of optical angular momentum began with the realisation by Allen et al. in 1992 that, in addition to the spin associated with polarisation, light beams with helical phase fronts carry orbital angular momentum. There has been much confusion and debate, however, surrounding the intricacies of the field and, in particular, the separation of the angular momentum into its spin and orbital parts. Here we take the opportunity to state the current position as we understand it, which we present as six perspectives: (i) We start with a reprise of the 1992 paper in which it was pointed out that the Laguerre-Gaussian modes, familiar from laser physics, carry orbital angular momentum. (ii) The total angular momentum may be separated into spin and orbital parts, but neither alone is a true angular momentum. (iii) The spin and orbital parts, although not themselves true angular momenta, are distinct and physically meaningful, as has been demonstrated clearly in a range of experiments. (iv) The orbital part of the angular momentum in the direction of propagation of a beam is not simply the azimuthal component of the linear momentum. (v) The component of spin in the direction of propagation is not the helicity, although these are related quantities. (vi) Finally the spin and orbital parts of the angular momentum correspond to distinct symmetries of the free electromagnetic field and hence are separately conserved quantities.
Original languageEnglish
Article number064004
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Optics
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 21 Apr 2016


  • optical angular momentum
  • spin parts
  • orbital parts


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