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Oureyescanseesinglespecksoflight|ScienceNewsforStudents

LIGHT&RADIATION PHYSICS, BRAIN

Oureyescanseesingle
specksoflight
Detectingindividualphotonsanswersquestionsaboutthe
sensitivityofhumanvision
BY EMILY CONOVER AUG 26, 2016 7:00 AM EST

In dimlight conditions we can see plenty because, it turns out, our eyes are sensitive enough to
pick up a single photon of light.

Lekcej / iStockphoto

Fordecades,researchershavewonderedjusthowlittlelighttheeyecansee.
Theynowappeartohavetheanswer.Anditssurprising.Oureyescandetect
asinglespeckwhatscientistscallaphotonorlightparticle,anewstudy
suggests.Ifconfirmed,thismayallowscientiststousethehumaneyetotest
somebasicfeaturesofphysicsonthesupersmallscale.
Thenewstudyalsoshowedthatthehumaneyedetectssinglephotonsbetter
whenithasjustseenanotherphoton.Thiswasanunexpected
phenomenon,saysAlipashaVaziri.HeisaphysicistatRockefellerUniversity
inNewYorkCity.Physicistsstudythenatureandpropertiesofmatterand
energy.VaziriandcolleaguesdescribedtheresultsoftheirstudyJuly19
inNatureCommunications.
Earlierexperimentsindicatedthatpeoplecanseeblipsoflightmadeupof
justafewphotons.Buttherehadbeennosurefirewaytotelliftheeye
registerssinglephotons.Thatsbecausesinglephotonsarehardtoproduce
reliably.ButVaziriandhiscoworkerswereabletodoit.
Theyusedatechniquewithalongname:spontaneousparametricdown

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Oureyescanseesinglespecksoflight|ScienceNewsforStudents

Theyusedatechniquewithalongname:spontaneousparametricdown
conversion,orSPDC.Scientistssendahighenergyphotonintoacrystal.
Onceinside,thesinglephotonturnsintotwolowenergyphotons.Oneof
thosenewphotonsisdivertedtosomeoneseye.TheSPDCsystemdeflects
thephotontoadetector.Thatdetectorconfirmseachphotonthatis
produced.
Duringtheexperiment,peoplewatchfortheverydimflashofaphoton.The
participantsalsolistenforwarningbeeps.Andtherewillbetwo.Oneofthem
accompaniesthephoton.Theotherdoesnot.Theparticipantdoesnotknow
whichbeepcorrespondstoalightspeck.Eachviewerreportswhichbeepthey
thoughtannouncedaphoton,andhowconfidenttheywerethattheywere
right.
Thescientistsrantheexperiment2,420times.Participantsguessedthe
correctbeepslightlymoretimesthanshouldoccurjustduetochance.That
seeminglyunimpressivesuccessratehadbeenexpected.Thereason:Most
photonswillnotmakeitallthewaythroughtotheretinaatthebackofthe
eye.That'sthepartofeyesensitivetolight.Whentheretinapicksup
photons,itwillalertthebrain,whichcanthenformavisualimage.That
meansthatinmosttrials,aparticipantwouldntbeabletoseeaphoton
associatedwitheitherbeep.
Butintrialswheretheparticipantsindicatedtheyweremostcertainoftheir
choice,theywerecorrect60percentofthetime.Suchasuccessratewould
beunlikelyifhumanswereunabletoseeasinglephoton.Thechanceofsuch
aflukewouldbeonein1,000.
Itsnotsurprisingthatthecorrectnessoftheresultmightrelyonthe
[viewers]confidence,saysPaulKwiat.HeisaphysicistattheUniversityof
IllinoisatUrbanaChampaignwhowasnotinvolvedwiththeresearch.Those
trialswhereparticipantsweremoreconfidentmayrepresentthetimeswhen
photonssucceededinmakingitthroughtotheirretinas,hesuggests.
Thedataalsoindicatethatsinglephotonsmaybeabletopreparethebrain
todetectmoredimflashesthatfollow.Participantsweremorelikelyto
correctlyidentifyaphotoniftheyhadbeensentonelessthan10seconds
earlier.
The eye as a physics tool

ScientistshopetousetheSPDCphotonscoutingtechniquetotestwhether
humanscandirectlyobservequantumweirdness.
Quantummechanicsisafieldofphysicsthatdealswiththewaymatter
behavesonthescaleofatomsortheireventinierbuildingblocks.Andthats
thearenaoureyesmaybeabletohelpscientistsunderstand.
Allscientistsagreethatbynormalstandards,thequantumworldisweird.For
instance,photonscanbeintwoplacesatonce.Scientistsdescribethisstate
asthephotonsbeinginaquantumsuperposition.

Somephysicistswonderwhetheritmightbepossibletosendsuchquantum
statestosomeoneseye.Ifhumanscoulddirectlyobservethestrange
quantumbehavior,ratherthanhavingtouseotherfancydetectors,they
mightbeabletobetterunderstandit.
ButLeonidKrivitskyisntconvinced.HeisaphysicistattheAgencyfor
Science,TechnologyandResearchinSingapore.Heclaimstobepretty
skepticalaboutthisideaofobservingquantumnessinthebrain.Bythetime

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Oureyescanseesinglespecksoflight|ScienceNewsforStudents

skepticalaboutthisideaofobservingquantumnessinthebrain.Bythetime
thebrainrealizesaneyehasseenaflashoflight,thosephotonsignalswill
havelostanypotentialquantumproperties,hesuspects.
Iftrue,whyshouldanyonecareiftheeyecanseeasinglephoton?Vaziri
saysitmaypointtounderstandingourpreelectriclightsociety.Imagine,he
says,thatyouaresomewhereoutsideofacityinnature,andonamoonless
night.Youwillhaveonlystarsbywhichtonavigate.Andonaverage,he
says,thenumberofphotonsthatgetintoyoureyewillbeapproachingthe
singlephotonregime.
Havingeyessensitiveenoughtoseesinglephotons,hesays,mayhavehad
someevolutionaryadvantage.Itmayhavehelpedusadapttoanighttime
worldthatexistedbeforetheadventoflightbulbs.
Power Words
(for more about Power Words, click here)
evolutionary An adjective that refers to changes that occur within a species over time as
it adapts to its environment. Such evolutionary changes usually reflect genetic variation and
natural selection, which leave a new type of organism better suited for its environment than
its ancestors. The newer type is not necessarily more advanced, just better adapted to the
conditions in which it developed.
photon A particle representing the smallest possible amount of light or other
electromagnetic radiation.
physicist A scientist who studies the nature and properties of matter and energy.
quantum mechanics A branch of physics dealing with the behavior of matter on the scale
of atoms or subatomic particles.
quantum theory A way to describe the operation of matter and energy at the level of
atoms. It is based on an interpretation that at this scale, energy and matter can be thought
to behave as both particles and waves. The idea is that on this very tiny scale, matter and
energy are made up of what scientists refer to as quanta miniscule amounts of
electromagnetic energy.
quantum physics A branch of physics that uses quantum theory to explain or predict how
a physical system will operate on the scale of atoms or subatomic particles.
quantum superposition The condition in which a quantum system is in a few different
states at the same time.
regime A system of government or an established organization that tends to establish
rules or the normal or conventional way of looking at something or doing something.
retina A layer at the back of the eyeball containing cells that are sensitive to light and that
trigger nerve impulses that travel along the optic nerve to the brain, where a visual image is
formed.

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Read another version of this story at Science News.

Citation
J.N. Tinsley et al. Direct detection of a single photon by
humans (http://www.nature.com/ncomms/2016/160719/ncomms12172/full/ncomms12172.html).
Nature Communications. Vol. 7, July 19, 2016. doi: 10.1038/ncomms12172.
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