Caustics and Rogue Waves in an Optical Sea

There are many examples in physics of systems showing rogue wave behaviour, the generation of high amplitude events at low probability. Although initially studied in oceanography, rogue waves have now been seen in many other domains, with particular recent interest in optics. Although most studies in optics have focussed on how nonlinearity can drive rogue wave emergence, purely linear effects have also been shown to induce extreme wave amplitudes. In this paper, we report a detailed experimental study of linear rogue waves in an optical system, using a spatial light modulator to impose random phase structure on a coherent optical field. After free space propagation, different random intensity patterns are generated, including partially-developed speckle, a broadband caustic network, and an intermediate pattern with characteristics of both speckle and caustic structures. Intensity peaks satisfying statistical criteria for rogue waves are seen especially in the case of the caustic network, and are associated with broader spatial spectra. In addition, the electric field statistics of the intermediate pattern shows properties of an “optical sea” with near-Gaussian statistics in elevation amplitude, and trough-to-crest statistics that are near-Rayleigh distributed but with an extended tail where a number of rogue wave events are observed.

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