Whence we know the photon exists

In my previous post, I laid out the argument discussing why the photoelectric effect does not imply the existence of photons. In this post, I want to outline, not the first, but probably the conceptually simplest experiment that showed that photons do indeed exist. It was performed by Grangier, Roger and Aspect in 1986, and the paper can be found at this link (PDF!).

The idea can be described by considering the following simple experiment. Imagine I have light impinging on a 50/50 beamsplitter and detectors at both of the output ports, as pictured below. In this configuration, 50% of the light will be transmitted, labelled t below, and 50% of the light will be reflected, labeled r below.


Now, if a discrete and indivisible packet of light, i.e. a photon, is shone on the beam splitter, then it must either be reflected (and hit D1) or be transmitted (and hit D2). The detectors are forbidden from clicking in coincidence. However, there is one particularly tricky thing about this experiment. How do I ensure that I only fire a single photon at the beam splitter?

This is where Aspect, Roger and Grangier provide us with a rather ingenious solution. They used a two-photon cascade from a calcium atom to solve the issue. For the purpose of this post, one only needs to know that when a photon excites the calcium atom to an excited state, it emits two photons as it relaxes back down to the ground state. This is because it relaxes first to an intermediate state and then to the ground state. This process is so fast that the photons are essentially emitted simultaneously on experimental timescales.

Now, because the calcium atom relaxes in this way, the first photon can be used to trigger the detectors to turn them on, and the second photon can impinge on the beam splitter to determine whether there are coincidences among the detectors. A schematic of the experimental arrangement is shown below (image taken from here; careful, it’s a large PDF file!):

GRA experiment

Famously, they were essentially able to extrapolate their results and show that the photons are perfectly anti-correlated, i.e. that when a photon reflects off of the beam splitter, there is no transmitted photon and vice versa. Alas the photon!

However, they did not stop there. To show that quantum mechanical superposition applies to single photons, they sent these single photons through a Mach-Zehnder interferometer (depicted schematically below, image taken from here).


They were able to show that single photons do indeed interfere. The fringes were observed with visibility of about 98%. A truly triumphant experiment that showed not only the existence of photons cleanly, but that their properties are non-classical and can be described by quantum mechanics!

2 responses to “Whence we know the photon exists

  1. Very conclusive article with great detail on how they prove in part 1 that the photon is going one way or the other so it must be a particle. In part 2, showing the wave idea, I have a question. To get the interference pattern, is he changing the length of the path the photon is taking by moving detectors back and forth on a nanometer scale? (is that even possible?) Or is he slightly changing the angle of the mirror? How do people do it today?


    • Yes, they change the path length. One of the mirrors can be translated with a piezoelectric motor which affords very fine precision.


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