In Vaziri’s experiment, three volunteers sat in total darkness for around 40 minutes, and then stared into an optical system. When they pushed a button they heard two sounds, separated by one second. Sometimes, one of the sounds was accompanied by the emission of a photon. The participants had to say on which occasion they thought they saw a photon, and how confident they were (on a scale of 1 to 3) about their sighting.
In many cases, they got it wrong; this is to be expected, given that more than 90% of photons that enter the front of the eye never even reach a rod cell, because they are absorbed or reflected by other parts of the eye. Still, participants were able to answer correctly more frequently than would be expected if they had guessed at random—and their confidence level was higher when they were right.
The three volunteers sat through a total of more than 2,400 trials in which a single photon was emitted (and many more in which it was not). That high volume of testing, the researchers say, gives them strong statistical evidence of single-photon detection.
But not all researchers think the paper is conclusive. “The only thing that I am sceptical about is that only three individuals have been tested,” says Leonid Krivitskiy, a physicist at the Agency for Science Technology and Research in Singapore. All of them were male, he adds, and the visual physiologies of women and men are known to be subtly different, he points out. But Krivitskiy is convinced that the authors’ method is capable of settling the question once and for all, if the experiment is tested on more volunteers.
Vaziri plans to test how the visual system responds to photons in various quantum states—in particular those that are in a ‘superposition’ of two simultaneous states. Some physicists have suggested that such experiments could test whether a superposition of two states could survive in a person’s sensory system, and perhaps be perceived in the brain.
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