Existence of Photons

A Hubble Space Telescope Experiment to Confirm the Existence of Individual Photons

I hope to encourage NASA and/or observational astronomers to proceed with a simple experiment, which seems ideally suited for the Hubble telescope. Very large telescopes like the Hubble are capable of seeing extremely faint stars. The amount of light we receive from such stars is so small that "time exposure" photographs are the only method of accumulating an image of them. Light is collected for hours, to capture enough to form a tiny point image. All Physicists know that this light arrives as discrete photons and not as a continuous supply of light energy.

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The reasoning here is that WHILE collecting the light for such a long exposure of a very faint star, many individual photons would be captured AND there should also be intervals where no photons are collected. A normal time-exposure would never be aware of this, because all that is desired is the collected total of light over the whole exposure period. What is suggested here is to piggy-back on to a standard observation, a second experiment. A standard counter circuit could be used to count how many photons arrived in, say 1/20 second intervals. It will be suggested below that a source with magnitude +24 should be providing photons at around 4 per second (for a telescope with a mirror of one square meter area). If twenty "polls" were made during that second, of the electronic output of a pixel of the detector array, it should be that four of the polls would usually show one reception and the remainder would show zero. In principle, each pixel element of the detector array could be polled in this way. A simple sequential display of those polling results should demonstrate the discrete nature of the photon reception in this way. This would confirm again the reality of the particle nature of light.

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At the Earth's distance from the Sun, we receive solar energy at about 1350 watts per square meter of area. This can also be described as 1350 Joules per second per square meter or 1.35 * 1010 ergs per second per square meter. This amount of energy reception is for the Sun, which is at a Visual Magnitude of -26.

The energy carried by an individual photon is given by the product of Planck's constant and the frequency of the radiation. Planck's constant is about 6.6 * 10-27 erg-seconds. Sunlight is made up of a spectrum of colors, and therefore wavelengths or frequencies. A central wavelength is often taken as 0.556 micron or 5560 Angstroms. Since the product of frequency and wavelength is equal to the speed of light (3 * 108 meters per second), simple math gives a frequency of this light as about 5.4 * 1014 cycles per second. Multiplying this value by Planck's constant gives 3.6 * 10-12 ergs as the energy of a single photon (of that color light).

Using the above value of Solar energy of 1.35 * 1010 ergs per second per square meter, this means that this represents about 3.8 * 1021 photons per second per square meter of reception area, from the Sun, which is at Visual Magnitude -26.

For each 5 Magnitudes fainter, the brightness or intensity of the radiation received is less by a factor of 100 (by definition). Thus, a source of a brightness of Magnitude -21 would supply us with 1/100 as many photons, or 3.8 * 1019. Extending this analysis, a source of Magnitude +24 (well within the ability of large telescopes), would be supplying us with light at the rate of about 3.8 photons per second.


IF 3.8 photons per second are received per square meter of reception area, the Hubble's 4.5 square meters of primary mirror area would collect roughly 20 photons per second from each (+24 magnitude) star. During a very brief time interval, say 0.01 second, only about 1/5 of the actual stars should record on the exposure, due to reception of an individual photon from that star during that 0.01 second.

If an array count chart was made for each pixel of a detector array for that 0.01 second, only around 1/5 of the objects should seem to appear. During the NEXT 0.01 second, other pixels would be triggered, resulting in an extremely different pattern (during that brief poll). A series of such brief interval "polls" which essentially acts as a rapid series of exposures should then each show a random assortment of visible stars of the field. If that sequence was then viewed sequentially, all of the constituent stars would seem to blink, with each being visible about 1/5 of the time. The conventional time-exposure result would just show the standard desired appearance, showing all the stars at their appropriate brightnesses.

The existence of this result would confirm once again the quantized nature of light. A wave nature would not demonstrate any of the "blinking" described above, and each star's image would be constant. Such an experiment would also confirm the reality of Planck's constant and other basic premises of Physics.


I am not aware that anyone has ever done such an experiment. If it has been done, please inform me and accept my apologies for overlooking your efforts!


There would appear to be some additional important consequences of this effect, assuming it actually exists. The amount of energy carried by a single photon is dependent on the wavelength of the light it represents. That implies that the individual polls of Magnitude +24 (or fainter) objects will necessarily include reception of photons of various energy contents, due to the different colors of the light being received. Careful analysis of the polled results might offer some data on this. Photons of violet light should cause the detector to give an output with more amplitude than photons of red light. An analysis of the amplitudes of those individual photons should essentially give a spectrum of the object, one photon at a time!

Again, a solidly accepted portion of Physics would thereby be confirmed.


This presentation was first placed on the Internet in February 2000.

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C Johnson, Theoretical Physicist, Physics Degree from Univ of Chicago