In this paper, we present a review of our work to date on the optical and magneto-optical characterization of thin films. The fundamental physical principles which govern the reflection or transmission of light from thin film systems are discussed from first principles, such that very little prior knowledge of the field is required to benefit from this work. The physical origins of the polar Kerr effect are discussed, as well as the phenomenological description of this effect with Jones matrices. The 4×4 characteristic matrix method for the calculation of optical and magneto-optical multilayer response is also described. Some of the various experiments which can be used to measure the optical and magneto-optical response of filmed systems are discussed (ellipsometry, Kerr measurements, reflectance), as well as the fundamental procedures used to extract useful optical and magneto-optical constants from the raw experimental data. Finally, applications to three important materials systems (TbFeCo amorphous alloys, Co/Pt multilayers, and Bi-substituted garnets) are reviewed.
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