QED - Section 2

The human eye is a very good instrument: it takes only about five or six photons to activate a nerve cell and send a message to the brain. If we were evolved a little further so we could see ten times more sensitively, we wouldn't have to have this discussion -- we would all have seen very dim light of one color as a series of intermittent little flashes of equal intensity.

You might wonder how it is possible to detect a single photon. One instrument that can do this is called a photomultiplier, and I'll describe briefly how it works: When a photon hits a metal plate A at the bottom (see Figure 1), it causes an electron to break loose from one of the atoms in the plate. The free electron is strongly attracted to plate B (which has a positive charge on it) and hits it with enough force to break loose three or four electrons. Each of the electrons knocked out of plate B is attracted to plate C (which is also charged), and their collision with plate C knocks loose even more electrons. This process is repeated ten or twelve times, until billions of electrons, enough to make a sizable electrical current, hit the last plate, L. This current can be amplified by a regular amplifier and sent through a speaker to make audible clicks. Each time a photon of a given color hits the photomultiplier, a click of uniform loudness is heard.

(from QED, by Richard Feynman, p. 14)