QED - Section 3

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, 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.

If you put a whole lot of photomultipliers around and let some very dim light shine in various directions, the light goes into one multiplier or another and makes a click of full intensity. IT is all or nothing: if one photomultiplier goes off at a given moment, none of the others goes off at the same moment (except in the rare instance that two photons happened to leave the light source at the same time). There is no splitting of light into "half particles" that go different places. I want to emphasize that light comes in this form -— particles. It is very important to know that light behaves like particles, especially for those of you who have gone to school, where you were probably told something about light behaving like waves. I'm telling you the way it does behave like particles.

You might say that it's just the photomultiplier that detects light as particles, but no, every instrument that has been designed to be sensitive enough to detect weak light has always ended up discovering the same thing: light is made of particles.


(from QED, by Richard Feynman, p. 15)
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