Research Papers in Physics and Astronomy


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Published in ApJ Letters. Copyright © 2007 American Astronomical Society. Used by permission.


Observations of the optical polarization of NGC 4151 in 1997–2003 show variations of an order of magnitude in the polarized flux while the polarization position angle remains constant. The amplitude of variability of the polarized flux is comparable to the amplitude of variability of the total U-band flux, except that the polarized flux follows the total flux with a lag of 8±3 days. The time lag and the constancy of the position angle strongly favor a scattering origin for the variable polarization rather than a non-thermal synchrotron origin. The orientation of the position angle of the polarized flux (parallel to the radio axis) and the size of the lag imply that the polarization arises from electron scattering in a flattened region within the low-ionization component of the broad-line-region. Polarization from dust scattering in the equatorial torus is ruled out as the source of the lag in polarized flux because it would produce a larger lag and polarization perpendicular to the radio axis. We note a long-term change in the percentage polarization at similar total flux levels and we attribute this to a change in the number of scatterers on a timescale of years.

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