Human eye spots single photons

Ability to detect smallest unit of light focuses debate on vision sensitivity

eye detecting a photon

FLASH OF LIGHT  People were able to detect single photons in a recent study, indicating that human eyes are sensitive to individual particles of light.


Human eyes are capable of detecting a single photon — the tiniest possible speck of light — new research suggests.

The result, published July 19 in Nature Communications, may settle the debate on the ultimate limit of the sensitivity of the human visual system, a puzzle scientists have pondered for decades. Scientists are now anticipating possibilities for using the human eye to test quantum mechanics with single photons.

Researchers also found that the human eye is more sensitive to single photons shortly after it has seen another photon. This was “an unexpected phenomenon that we just discovered when we analyzed the data,” says physicist Alipasha Vaziri of Rockefeller University in New York City.

Previous experiments have indicated that humans can see blips of light made up of just a few photons. But there hasn’t been a surefire test of single photons, which are challenging to produce reliably. Vaziri and colleagues used a quantum optics technique called spontaneous parametric down-conversion. In this process, a high-energy photon converts into two low-energy photons inside of a crystal. One of the resulting photons is sent to someone’s eye, and one to a detector, which confirms that the photons were produced.

During the experiment, subjects watched for the dim flash of a photon, which arrived at one of two times, with both times indicated by a beep. Subjects then chose which beep they thought was associated with a photon, and how confident they were in their decision.

In 2,420 trials, participants fared just slightly better than chance overall. That seemingly unimpressive success rate is expected. Because most photons don’t make it all the way through the eye to the retina where they can be seen, in most trials, the subject wouldn’t be able to see a photon associated with either beep. But in trials where the participants indicated they were most certain of their choice, they were correct 60 percent of the time. Such a success rate would be unlikely if humans were unable to see photons — the chance of such a fluke is 0.1 percent.

“It’s not surprising that the correctness of the result might rely on the confidence,” says physicist Paul Kwiat of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who was not involved with the research. The high-confidence trials may represent photons that made it through to the retina, Kwiat suggests.

Additionally, the data indicate that single photons may be able to prime the brain to detect more dim flashes that follow. When participants had seen another photon in the preceding 10 seconds, they had better luck picking out the photon.

Scientists hope to use the technique to test whether humans can directly observe quantum weirdness. Photons can be in two places at once, a state known as a quantum superposition. The technique could be adapted to send such quantum states to a subject’s eye. But, says Leonid Krivitsky, a physicist at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research in Singapore, “I’m pretty skeptical about this idea of observing quantumness in the brain.” The signals, he suggests, will have lost their quantum properties by the time they reach the brain.

Whether humans can see individual photons may seem to be a purely academic question. But, Vaziri says, “If you are somewhere outside of a city in nature and on a moonless night and you have only stars to navigate, on average the number of photons that get into your eye is approaching the single photon regime.” So, he says, having eyes sensitive enough to see single photons may have some evolutionary advantage.

Physics writer Emily Conover has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago. She is a two-time winner of the D.C. Science Writers’ Association Newsbrief award.

More Stories from Science News on Life