Abstract

The propagation of arbitrarily polarized light through a gas of multistate atoms is calculated numerically. By including diffraction in two transverse dimensions, it is shown that an initially cylindrically symmetric beam can break its spatial symmetry through a mechanism of competition between the polarization components of the vector wave. This competition can be of an entirely absorptive nature, and, for the homogeneously broadened transition considered, cylindrical symmetry breaking is predicted even for input beams tuned exactly to atomic resonance where cross-phase modulation effects are entirely absent.

© 1991 Optical Society of America

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