In one interpretation of quantum physics, when you snap your fingers, the trajectory you are riding through reality fragments into a cascade of alternative universes—one for each possible quantum outcome among all the different quantum states composing the molecules of your fingers.
This is the Many-Worlds Interpretation (MWI) of quantum physics first proposed rigorously by Hugh Everett in his doctoral thesis in 1957 under the supervision of John Wheeler at Princeton University. Everett had been drawn to this interpretation when he found inconsistencies between quantum physics and gravitation—topics which were supposed to have been his actual thesis topic. But his side-trip into quantum philosophy turned out to be a one-way trip. The reception of his theory was so hostile, no less than from Copenhagen and Bohr himself, that Everett left physics and spent a career at the Pentagon.
Resurrecting MWI in the Name of Quantum Information
Fast forward by 20 years, after Wheeler had left Princeton for the University of Texas at Austin, and once again a young physicist was struggling to reconcile quantum physics with gravity. Once again the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics seemed the only sane way out of the dilemma, and once again a side-trip became a life-long obsession.
David Deutsch, visiting Wheeler in the early 1980’s, became convinced that the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics held the key to paradoxes in the theory of quantum information (For the full story of Wheeler, Everett and Deutsch, see Ref ). He was so convinced, that he began a quest to find a physical system that operated on more information than could be present in one universe at a time. If such a physical system existed, it would be because streams of information from more than one universe were coming together and combining in a way that allowed one of the universes to “borrow” the information from the other.
It took only a year or two before Deutsch found what he was looking for—a simple quantum algorithm that yielded twice as much information as would be possible if there were no parallel universes. This is the now-famous Deutsch algorithm—the first quantum algorithm . At the heart of the Deutsch algorithm is a simple quantum interference. The algorithm did nothing useful—but it convinced Deutsch that two universes were interfering coherently in the measurement process, giving that extra bit of information that should not have been there otherwise. A few years later, the Deutsch-Josza algorithm  expanded the argument to interfere an exponentially larger amount of information streams from an exponentially larger number of universes to create a result that was exponentially larger than any classical computer could produce. This marked the beginning of the quest for the quantum computer that is running red-hot today.
Deutsch’s “proof” of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is not a mathematical proof but is rather a philosophical proof. It holds no sway over how physicists do the math to make their predictions. The Copenhagen interpretation, with its “spooky” instantaneous wavefunction collapse, works just fine predicting the outcome of quantum algorithms and the exponential quantum advantage of quantum computing. Therefore, the story of David Deutsch and the MWI may seem like a chimera—except for one fact—it inspired him to generate the first quantum algorithm that launched what may be the next revolution in the information revolution of modern society. Inspiration is important in science, because it lets scientists create things that had been impossible before.
But if quantum interference is the heart of quantum computing, then there is one physical system that has the ultimate simplicity that may yet inspire future generations of physicists to invent future impossible things—the quantum beam splitter. Nothing in the study of quantum interference can be simpler than a sliver of dielectric material sending single photons one way or another. Yet the outcome of this simple system challenges the mind and reminds us of why Everett and Deutsch embraced the MWI in the first place.
The Classical Beam Splitter
The so-called “beam splitter” is actually a misnomer. Its name implies that it takes a light beam and splits it into two, as if there is only one input. But every “beam splitter” has two inputs, which is clear by looking at the classical 50/50 beam splitter. The actual action of the optical element is the combination of beams into superpositions in each of the outputs. It is only when one of the input fields is zero, a special case, that the optical element acts as a beam splitter. In general, it is a beam combiner.
Given two input fields, the output fields are superpositions of the inputs
The square-root of two factor ensures that energy is conserved, because optical fluence is the square of the fields. This relation is expressed more succinctly as a matrix input-output relation
The phase factors in these equations ensure that the matrix is unitary
reflecting energy conservation.
The Quantum Beam Splitter
A quantum beam splitter is just a classical beam splitter operating at the level of individual photons. Rather than describing single photons entering or leaving the beam splitter, it is more practical to describe the properties of the fields through single-photon quantum operators
where the unitary matrix is the same as the classical case, but with fields replaced by the famous “a” operators. The photon operators operate on single photon modes. For instance, the two one-photon input cases are
where the creation operators operate on the vacuum state in each of the input modes.
The fundamental combinational properties of the beam splitter are even more evident in the quantum case, because there is no such thing as a single input to a quantum beam splitter. Even if no photons are directed into one of the input ports, that port still receives a “vacuum” input, and this vacuum input contributes to the fluctuations observed in the outputs.
The input-output relations for the quantum beam splitter are
The beam splitter operating on a one-photon input converts the input-mode creation operator into a superposition of out-mode creation operators that generates
The resulting output is entangled: either the single photon exits one port, or it exits the other. In the many worlds interpretation, the photon exits from one port in one universe, and it exits from the other port in a different universe. On the other hand, in the Copenhagen interpretation, the two output ports of the beam splitter are perfectly anti-correlated.
The Hong-Ou-Mandel (HOM) Interferometer
When more than one photon is incident on a beam splitter, the fascinating effects of quantum interference come into play, creating unexpected outputs for simple inputs. For instance, the simplest example is a two photon input where a single photon is present in each input port of the beam splitter. The input state is represented with single creation operators operating on each vacuum state of each input port
creating a single photon in each of the input ports. The beam splitter operates on this input state by converting the input-mode creation operators into out-put mode creation operators to give
The important step in this process is the middle line of the equations: There is perfect destructive interference between the two single-photon operations. Therefore, both photons always exit the beam splitter from the same port—never split. Furthermore, the output is an entangled two-photon state, once more splitting universes.
The two-photon interference experiment was performed in 1987 by Chung Ki Hong and Jeff Ou, students of Leonard Mandel at the Optics Institute at the University of Rochester , and this two-photon operation of the beam splitter is now called the HOM interferometer. The HOM interferometer has become a center-piece for optical and photonic implementations of quantum information processing and quantum computers.
N-Photons on a Beam Splitter
Of course, any number of photons can be input into a beam splitter. For example, take the N-photon input state
The beam splitter acting on this state produces
The quantity on the right hand side can be re-expressed using the binomial theorem
where the permutations are defined by the binomial coefficient
The output state is given by
which is a “super” entangled state composed of N multi-photon states, involving N different universes.
Coherent States on a Quantum Beam Splitter
Surprisingly, there is a multi-photon input state that generates a non-entangled output—as if the input states were simply classical fields. These are the so-called coherent states, introduced by Glauber and Sudarshan [5, 6]. Coherent states can be described as superpositions of multi-photon states, but when a beam splitter operates on these superpositions, the outputs are simply 50/50 mixtures of the states. For instance, if the input scoherent tates are denoted by α and β, then the output states after the beam splitter are
This output is factorized and hence is NOT entangled. This is one of the many reasons why coherent states in quantum optics are considered the “most classical” of quantum states. In this case, a quantum beam splitter operates on the inputs just as if they were classical fields.
 D. Deutsch, “Quantum-theory, the church-turing principle and the universal quantum computer,” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series a-Mathematical Physical and Engineering Sciences, vol. 400, no. 1818, pp. 97-117, (1985)
 D. Deutsch and R. Jozsa, “Rapid solution of problems by quantum computation,” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series a-Mathematical Physical and Engineering Sciences, vol. 439, no. 1907, pp. 553-558, Dec (1992)
 C. K. Hong, Z. Y. Ou, and L. Mandel, “Measurement of subpicosecond time intervals between 2 photons by interference,” Physical Review Letters, vol. 59, no. 18, pp. 2044-2046, Nov (1987)
 Glauber, R. J. (1963). “Photon Correlations.” Physical Review Letters 10(3): 84.
 Sudarshan, E. C. G. (1963). “Equivalence of semiclassical and quantum mechanical descriptions of statistical light beams.” Physical Review Letters 10(7): 277-&.; Mehta, C. L. and E. C. Sudarshan (1965). “Relation between quantum and semiclassical description of optical coherence.” Physical Review 138(1B): B274.
New from Oxford Press: The History of Optical Interferometry (Late Summer 2023)
Now is exactly the wrong moment to be reviewing the state of photonic quantum computing — the field is moving so rapidly, at just this moment, that everything I say here now will probably be out of date in just a few years. On the other hand, now is exactly the right time to be doing this review, because so much has happened in just the past few years, that it is important to take a moment and look at where this field is today and where it will be going.
At the 20-year anniversary of the publication of my book Mind at Light Speed (Free Press, 2001), this blog is the third in a series reviewing progress in three generations of Machines of Light over the past 20 years (see my previous blogs on the future of the photonic internet and on all-optical computers). This third and final update reviews progress on the third generation of the Machines of Light: the Quantum Optical Generation. Of the three generations, this is the one that is changing the fastest.
Quantum computing is almost here … and it will be at room temperature, using light, in photonic integrated circuits!
Quantum Computing with Linear Optics
Twenty years ago in 2001, Emanuel Knill and Raymond LaFlamme at Los Alamos National Lab, with Gerald Mulburn at the University of Queensland, Australia, published a revolutionary theoretical paper (known as KLM) in Nature on quantum computing with linear optics: “A scheme for efficient quantum computation with linear optics” . Up until that time, it was believed that a quantum computer — if it was going to have the property of a universal Turing machine — needed to have at least some nonlinear interactions among qubits in a quantum gate. For instance, an example of a two-qubit gate is a controlled-NOT, or CNOT, gate shown in Fig. 1 with the Truth Table and the equivalent unitary matrix. It clear that one qubit is controlling the other, telling it what to do.
The quantum CNOT gate gets interesting when the control line has a quantum superposition, then the two outputs become entangled.
Entanglement is a strange process that is unique to quantum systems and has no classical analog. It also has no simple intuitive explanation. By any normal logic, if the control line passes through the gate unaltered, then absolutely nothing interesting should be happening on the Control-Out line. But that’s not the case. The control line going in was a separate state. If some measurement were made on it, either a 1 or 0 would be seen with equal probability. But coming out of the CNOT, the signal has somehow become perfectly correlated with whatever value is on the Signal-Out line. If the Signal-Out is measured, the measurement process collapses the state of the Control-Out to a value equal to the measured signal. The outcome of the control line becomes 100% certain even though nothing was ever done to it! This entanglement generation is one reason the CNOT is often the gate of choice when constructing quantum circuits to perform interesting quantum algorithms.
However, optical implementation of a CNOT is a problem, because light beams and photons really do not like to interact with each other. This is the problem with all-optical classical computers too (see my previous blog). There are ways of getting light to interact with light, for instance inside nonlinear optical materials. And in the case of quantum optics, a single atom in an optical cavity can interact with single photons in ways that can act like a CNOT or related gates. But the efficiencies are very low and the costs to implement it are very high, making it difficult or impossible to scale such systems up into whole networks needed to make a universal quantum computer.
Therefore, when KLM published their idea for quantum computing with linear optics, it caused a shift in the way people were thinking about optical quantum computing. A universal optical quantum computer could be built using just light sources, beam splitters and photon detectors.
The way that KLM gets around the need for a direct nonlinear interaction between two photons is to use postselection. They run a set of photons — signal photons and ancilla (test) photons — through their linear optical system and they detect (i.e., theoretically…the paper is purely a theoretical proposal) the ancilla photons. If these photons are not detected where they are wanted, then that iteration of the computation is thrown out, and it is tried again and again, until the photons end up where they need to be. When the ancilla outcomes are finally what they need to be, this run is selected because the signal state are known to have undergone a known transformation. The signal photons are still unmeasured at this point and are therefore in quantum superpositions that are useful for quantum computation. Postselection uses entanglement and measurement collapse to put the signal photons into desired quantum states. Postselection provides an effective nonlinearity that is induced by the wavefunction collapse of the entangled state. Of course, the down side of this approach is that many iterations are thrown out — the computation becomes non-deterministic.
KLM could get around most of the non-determinism by using more and more ancilla photons, but this has the cost of blowing up the size and cost of the implementation, so their scheme was not imminently practical. But the important point was that it introduced the idea of linear quantum computing. (For this, Milburn and his collaborators have my vote for a future Nobel Prize.) Once that idea was out, others refined it, and improved upon it, and found clever ways to make it more efficient and more scalable. Many of these ideas relied on a technology that was co-evolving with quantum computing — photonic integrated circuits (PICs).
Quantum Photonic Integrated Circuits (QPICs)
Never underestimate the power of silicon. The amount of time and energy and resources that have now been invested in silicon device fabrication is so astronomical that almost nothing in this world can displace it as the dominant technology of the present day and the future. Therefore, when a photon can do something better than an electron, you can guess that eventually that photon will be encased in a silicon chip–on a photonic integrated circuit (PIC).
The dream of integrated optics (the optical analog of integrated electronics) has been around for decades, where waveguides take the place of conducting wires, and interferometers take the place of transistors — all miniaturized and fabricated in the thousands on silicon wafers. The advantages of PICs are obvious, but it has taken a long time to develop. When I was a post-doc at Bell Labs in the late 1980’s, everyone was talking about PICs, but they had terrible fabrication challenges and terrible attenuation losses. Fortunately, these are just technical problems, not limited by any fundamental laws of physics, so time (and an army of researchers) has chipped away at them.
One of the driving forces behind the maturation of PIC technology is photonic fiber optic communications (as discussed in a previous blog). Photons are clear winners when it comes to long-distance communications. In that sense, photonic information technology is a close cousin to silicon — photons are no less likely to be replaced by a future technology than silicon is. Therefore, it made sense to bring the photons onto the silicon chips, tapping into the full array of silicon fab resources so that there could be seamless integration between fiber optics doing the communications and the photonic chips directing the information. Admittedly, photonic chips are not yet all-optical. They still use electronics to control the optical devices on the chip, but this niche for photonics has provided a driving force for advancements in PIC fabrication.
One side-effect of improved PIC fabrication is low light losses. In telecommunications, this loss is not so critical because the systems use OEO regeneration. But less loss is always good, and the PICs can now safeguard almost every photon that comes on chip — exactly what is needed for a quantum PIC. In a quantum photonic circuit, every photon is valuable and informative and needs to be protected. The new PIC fabrication can do this. In addition, light switches for telecom applications are built from integrated interferometers on the chip. It turns out that interferometers at the single-photon level are unitary quantum gates that can be used to build universal photonic quantum computers. So the same technology and control that was used for telecom is just what is needed for photonic quantum computers. In addition, integrated optical cavities on the PICs, which look just like wavelength filters when used for classical optics, are perfect for producing quantum states of light known as squeezed light that turn out to be valuable for certain specialty types of quantum computing.
Therefore, as the concepts of linear optical quantum computing advanced through that last 20 years, the hardware to implement those concepts also advanced, driven by a highly lucrative market segment that provided the resources to tap into the vast miniaturization capabilities of silicon chip fabrication. Very fortuitous!
Room-Temperature Quantum Computers
There are many radically different ways to make a quantum computer. Some are built of superconducting circuits, others are made from semiconductors, or arrays of trapped ions, or nuclear spins on nuclei on atoms in molecules, and of course with photons. Up until about 5 years ago, optical quantum computers seemed like long shots. Perhaps the most advanced technology was the superconducting approach. Superconducting quantum interference devices (SQUIDS) have exquisite sensitivity that makes them robust quantum information devices. But the drawback is the cold temperatures that are needed for them to work. Many of the other approaches likewise need cold temperature–sometimes astronomically cold temperatures that are only a few thousandths of a degree above absolute zero Kelvin.
Cold temperatures and quantum computing seemed a foregone conclusion — you weren’t ever going to separate them — and for good reason. The single greatest threat to quantum information is decoherence — the draining away of the kind of quantum coherence that allows interferences and quantum algorithms to work. In this way, entanglement is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, entanglement provides one of the essential resources for the exponential speed-up of quantum algorithms. But on the other hand, if a qubit “sees” any environmental disturbance, then it becomes entangled with that environment. The entangling of quantum information with the environment causes the coherence to drain away — hence decoherence. Hot environments disturb quantum systems much more than cold environments, so there is a premium for cooling the environment of quantum computers to as low a temperature as they can. Even so, decoherence times can be microseconds to milliseconds under even the best conditions — quantum information dissipates almost as fast as you can make it.
Enter the photon! The bottom line is that photons don’t interact. They are blind to their environment. This is what makes them perfect information carriers down fiber optics. It is also what makes them such good qubits for carrying quantum information. You can prepare a photon in a quantum superposition just by sending it through a lossless polarizing crystal, and then the superposition will last for as long as you can let the photon travel (at the speed of light). Sometimes this means putting the photon into a coil of fiber many kilometers long to store it, but that is OK — a kilometer of coiled fiber in the lab is no bigger than a few tens of centimeters. So the same properties that make photons excellent at carrying information also gives them very small decoherence. And after the KLM schemes began to be developed, the non-interacting properties of photons were no longer a handicap.
In the past 5 years there has been an explosion, as well as an implosion, of quantum photonic computing advances. The implosion is the level of integration which puts more and more optical elements into smaller and smaller footprints on silicon PICs. The explosion is the number of first-of-a-kind demonstrations: the first universal optical quantum computer , the first programmable photonic quantum computer , and the first (true) quantum computational advantage .
All of these “firsts” operate at room temperature. (There is a slight caveat: The photon-number detectors are actually superconducting wire detectors that do need to be cooled. But these can be housed off-chip and off-rack in a separate cooled system that is coupled to the quantum computer by — no surprise — fiber optics.) These are the advantages of photonic quantum computers: hundreds of qubits integrated onto chips, room-temperature operation, long decoherence times, compatibility with telecom light sources and PICs, compatibility with silicon chip fabrication, universal gates using postselection, and more. Despite the head start of some of the other quantum computing systems, photonics looks like it will be overtaking the others within only a few years to become the dominant technology for the future of quantum computing. And part of that future is being helped along by a new kind of quantum algorithm that is perfectly suited to optics.
A New Kind of Quantum Algorithm: Boson Sampling
In 2011, Scott Aaronson (then at at MIT) published a landmark paper titled “The Computational Complexity of Linear Optics” with his post-doc, Anton Arkhipov . The authors speculated on whether there could be an application of linear optics, not requiring the costly step of post-selection, that was still useful for applications, while simultaneously demonstrating quantum computational advantage. In other words, could one find a linear optical system working with photons that could solve problems intractable to a classical computer? To their own amazement, they did! The answer was something they called “boson sampling”.
To get an idea of what boson sampling is, and why it is very hard to do on a classical computer, think of the classic demonstration of the normal probability distribution found at almost every science museum you visit, illustrated in Fig. 2. A large number of ping-pong balls are dropped one at a time through a forest of regularly-spaced posts, bouncing randomly this way and that until they are collected into bins at the bottom. Bins near the center collect many balls, while bins farther to the side have fewer. If there are many balls, then the stacked heights of the balls in the bins map out a Gaussian probability distribution. The path of a single ping-pong ball represents a series of “decisions” as it hits each post and goes left or right, and the number of permutations of all the possible decisions among all the other ping-pong balls grows exponentially—a hard problem to tackle on a classical computer.
In the paper, Aaronson considered a quantum analog to the ping-pong problem in which the ping-pong balls are replaced by photons, and the posts are replaced by beam splitters. As its simplest possible implementation, it could have two photon channels incident on a single beam splitter. The well-known result in this case is the “HOM dip”  which is a consequence of the boson statistics of the photon. Now scale this system up to many channels and a cascade of beam splitters, and one has an N-channel multi-photon HOM cascade. The output of this photonic “circuit” is a sampling of the vast number of permutations allowed by bose statistics—boson sampling.
To make the problem more interesting, Aaronson allowed the photons to be launched from any channel at the top (as opposed to dropping all the ping-pong balls at the same spot), and they allowed each beam splitter to have adjustable phases (photons and phases are the key elements of an interferometer). By adjusting the locations of the photon channels and the phases of the beam splitters, it would be possible to “program” this boson cascade to mimic interesting quantum systems or even to solve specific problems, although they were not thinking that far ahead. The main point of the paper was the proposal that implementing boson sampling in a photonic circuit used resources that scaled linearly in the number of photon channels, while the problems that could be solved grew exponentially—a clear quantum computational advantage .
On the other hand, it turned out that boson sampling is not universal—one cannot construct a universal quantum computer out of boson sampling. The first proposal was a specialty algorithm whose main function was to demonstrate quantum computational advantage rather than do something specifically useful—just like Deutsch’s first algorithm. But just like Deutsch’s algorithm, which led ultimately to Shor’s very useful prime factoring algorithm, boson sampling turned out to be the start of a new wave of quantum applications.
Shortly after the publication of Aaronson’s and Arkhipov’s paper in 2011, there was a flurry of experimental papers demonstrating boson sampling in the laboratory [7, 8]. And it was discovered that boson sampling could solve important and useful problems, such as the energy levels of quantum systems, and network similarity, as well as quantum random-walk problems. Therefore, even though boson sampling is not strictly universal, it solves a broad class of problems. It can be viewed more like a specialty chip than a universal computer, like the now-ubiquitous GPU’s are specialty chips in virtually every desktop and laptop computer today. And the room-temperature operation significantly reduces cost, so you don’t need a whole government agency to afford one. Just like CPU costs followed Moore’s Law to the point where a Raspberry Pi computer costs $40 today, the photonic chips may get onto their own Moore’s Law that will reduce costs over the next several decades until they are common (but still specialty and probably not cheap) computers in academia and industry. A first step along that path was a recently-demonstrated general programmable room-temperature photonic quantum computer.
A Programmable Photonic Quantum Computer: Xanadu’s X8 Chip
I don’t usually talk about specific companies, but the new photonic quantum computer chip from Xanadu, based in Toronto, Canada, feels to me like the start of something big. In the March 4, 2021 issue of Nature magazine, researchers at the company published the experimental results of their X8 photonic chip . The chip uses boson sampling of strongly non-classical light. This was the first generally programmable photonic quantum computing chip, programmed using a quantum programming language they developed called Strawberry Fields. By simply changing the quantum code (using a simple conventional computer interface), they switched the computer output among three different quantum applications: transitions among states (spectra of molecular states), quantum docking, and similarity between graphs that represent two different molecules. These are radically different physics and math problems, yet the single chip can be programmed on the fly to solve each one.
The chip is constructed of nitride waveguides on silicon, shown in Fig. 6. The input lasers drive ring oscillators that produce squeezed states through four-wave mixing. The key to the reprogrammability of the chip is the set of phase modulators that use simple thermal changes on the waveguides. These phase modulators are changed in response to commands from the software to reconfigure the application. Although they switch slowly, once they are set to their new configuration, the computations take place “at the speed of light”. The photonic chip is at room temperature, but the outputs of the four channels are sent by fiber optic to a cooled unit containing the superconductor nanowire photon counters.
Admittedly, the four channels of the X8 chip are not large enough to solve the kinds of problems that would require a quantum computer, but the company has plans to scale the chip up to 100 channels. One of the challenges is to reduce the amount of photon loss in a multiplexed chip, but standard silicon fabrication approaches are expected to reduce loss in the next generation chips by an order of magnitude.
Additional companies are also in the process of entering the photonic quantum computing business, such as PsiQuantum, which recently closed a $450M funding round to produce photonic quantum chips with a million qubits. The company is led by Jeremy O’Brien from Bristol University who has been a leader in photonic quantum computing for over a decade.
 S. Aaronson and A. Arkhipov, “The Computational Complexity of Linear Optics,” in 43rd ACM Symposium on Theory of Computing, San Jose, CA, Jun 06-08 2011, NEW YORK: Assoc Computing Machinery, in Annual ACM Symposium on Theory of Computing, 2011, pp. 333-342
The quantum of light—the photon—is a little over 100 years old. It was born in 1905 when Einstein merged Planck’s blackbody quantum hypothesis with statistical mechanics and concluded that light itself must be quantized. No one believed him! Fast forward to today, and the photon is a modern workhorse of modern quantum technology. Quantum encryption and communication are performed almost exclusively with photons, and many prototype quantum computers are optics based. Quantum optics also underpins atomic and molecular optics (AMO), which is one of the hottest and most rapidly advancing frontiers of physics today.
Only after the availability of “quantum” light sources … could photon numbers be manipulated at will, launching the modern era of quantum optics.
This blog tells the story of the early days of the photon and of quantum optics. It begins with Einstein in 1905 and ends with the demonstration of photon anti-bunching that was the first fundamentally quantum optical phenomenon observed seventy years later in 1977. Across that stretch of time, the photon went from a nascent idea in Einstein’s fertile brain to the most thoroughly investigated quantum particle in the realm of physics.
The Photon: Albert Einstein (1905)
When Planck presented his quantum hypothesis in 1900 to the German Physical Society , his model of black body radiation retained all its classical properties but one—the quantized interaction of light with matter. He did not think yet in terms of quanta, only in terms of steps in a continuous interaction.
The quantum break came from Einstein when he published his 1905 paper proposing the existence of the photon—an actual quantum of light that carried with it energy and momentum . His reasoning was simple and iron-clad, resting on Planck’s own blackbody relation that Einstein combined with simple reasoning from statistical mechanics. He was led inexorably to the existence of the photon. Unfortunately, almost no one believed him (see my blog on Einstein and Planck).
This was before wave-particle duality in quantum thinking, so the notion that light—so clearly a wave phenomenon—could be a particle was unthinkable. It had taken half of the 19th century to rid physics of Newton’s corpuscules and emmisionist theories of light, so to bring it back at the beginning of the 20th century seemed like a great blunder. However, Einstein persisted.
In 1909 he published a paper on the fluctuation properties of light  in which he proposed that the fluctuations observed in light intensity had two contributions: one from the discreteness of the photons (what we call “shot noise” today) and one from the fluctuations in the wave properties. Einstein was proposing that both particle and wave properties contributed to intensity fluctuations, exhibiting simultaneous particle-like and wave-like properties. This was one of the first expressions of wave-particle duality in modern physics.
In 1916 and 1917 Einstein took another bold step and proposed the existence of stimulated emission . Once again, his arguments were based on simple physics—this time the principle of detailed balance—and he was led to the audacious conclusion that one photon can stimulated the emission of another. This would become the basis of the laser forty-five years later.
While Einstein was confident in the reality of the photon, others sincerely doubted its existence. Robert Milliken (1868 – 1953) decided to put Einstein’s theory of photoelectron emission to the most stringent test ever performed. In 1915 he painstakingly acquired the definitive dataset with the goal to refute Einstein’s hypothesis, only to confirm it in spectacular fashion . Partly based on Milliken’s confirmation of Einstein’s theory of the photon, Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921.
From that point onward, the physical existence of the photon was accepted and was incorporated routinely into other physical theories. Compton used the energy and the momentum of the photon in 1922 to predict and measure Compton scattering of x-rays off of electrons . The photon was given its modern name by Gilbert Lewis in 1926 .
Single-Photon Interference: Geoffry Taylor (1909)
If a light beam is made up of a group of individual light quanta, then in the limit of very dim light, there should just be one photon passing through an optical system at a time. Therefore, to do optical experiments on single photons, one just needs to reach the ultimate dim limit. As simple and clear as this argument sounds, it has problems that only were sorted out after the Hanbury Brown and Twiss experiments in the 1950’s and the controversy they launched (see below). However, in 1909, this thinking seemed like a clear approach for looking for deviations in optical processes in the single-photon limit.
In 1909, Geoffry Ingram Taylor (1886 – 1975) was an undergraduate student at Cambridge University and performed a low-intensity Young’s double-slit experiment (encouraged by J. J. Thomson). At that time the idea of Einstein’s photon was only 4 years old, and Bohr’s theory of the hydrogen atom was still a year away. But Thomson believed that if photons were real, then their existence could possibly show up as deviations in experiments involving single photons. Young’s double-slit experiment is the classic demonstration of the classical wave nature of light, so performing it under conditions when (on average) only a single photon was in transit between a light source and a photographic plate seemed like the best place to look.
The experiment was performed by finding an optimum exposure of photographic plates in a double slit experiment, then reducing the flux while increasing the exposure time, until the single-photon limit was achieved while retaining the same net exposure of the photographic plate. Under the lowest intensity, when only a single photon was in transit at a time (on average), Taylor performed the exposure for three months. To his disappointment, when he developed the film, there was no significant difference between high intensity and low intensity interference fringes . If photons existed, then their quantized nature was not showing up in the low-intensity interference experiment.
The reason that there is no single-photon-limit deviation in the behavior of the Young double-slit experiment is because Young’s experiment only measures first-order coherence properties. The average over many single-photon detection events is described equally well either by classical waves or by quantum mechanics. Quantized effects in the Young experiment could only appear in fluctuations in the arrivals of photons, but in Taylor’s day there was no way to detect the arrival of single photons.
Quantum Theory of Radiation : Paul Dirac (1927)
After Paul Dirac (1902 – 1984) was awarded his doctorate from Cambridge in 1926, he received a stipend that sent him to work with Niels Bohr (1885 – 1962) in Copenhagen. His attention focused on the electromagnetic field and how it interacted with the quantized states of atoms. Although the electromagnetic field was the classical field of light, it was also the quantum field of Einstein’s photon, and he wondered how the quantized harmonic oscillators of the electromagnetic field could be generated by quantum wavefunctions acting as operators. He decided that, to generate a photon, the wavefunction must operate on a state that had no photons—the ground state of the electromagnetic field known as the vacuum state.
Dirac put these thoughts into their appropriate mathematical form and began work on two manuscripts. The first manuscript contained the theoretical details of the non-commuting electromagnetic field operators. He called the process of generating photons out of the vacuum “second quantization”. In second quantization, the classical field of electromagnetism is converted to an operator that generates quanta of the associated quantum field out of the vacuum (and also annihilates photons back into the vacuum). The creation operators can be applied again and again to build up an N-photon state containing N photons that obey Bose-Einstein statistics, as they must, as required by their integer spin, and agreeing with Planck’s blackbody radiation.
Dirac then showed how an interaction of the quantized electromagnetic field with quantized energy levels involved the annihilation and creation of photons as they promoted electrons to higher atomic energy levels, or demoted them through stimulated emission. Very significantly, Dirac’s new theory explained the spontaneous emission of light from an excited electron level as a direct physical process that creates a photon carrying away the energy as the electron falls to a lower energy level. Spontaneous emission had been explained first by Einstein more than ten years earlier when he derived the famous A and B coefficients , but the physical mechanism for these processes was inferred rather than derived. Dirac, in late 1926, had produced the first direct theory of photon exchange with matter .
Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen (EPR) and Bohr (1935)
The famous dialog between Einstein and Bohr at the Solvay Conferences culminated in the now famous “EPR” paradox of 1935 when Einstein published (together with B. Podolsky and N. Rosen) a paper that contained a particularly simple and cunning thought experiment. In this paper, not only was quantum mechanics under attack, but so was the concept of reality itself, as reflected in the paper’s title “Can Quantum Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete?” .
Einstein considered an experiment on two quantum particles that had become “entangled” (meaning they interacted) at some time in the past, and then had flown off in opposite directions. By the time their properties are measured, the two particles are widely separated. Two observers each make measurements of certain properties of the particles. For instance, the first observer could choose to measure either the position or the momentum of one particle. The other observer likewise can choose to make either measurement on the second particle. Each measurement is made with perfect accuracy. The two observers then travel back to meet and compare their measurements. When the two experimentalists compare their data, they find perfect agreement in their values every time that they had chosen (unbeknownst to each other) to make the same measurement. This agreement occurred either when they both chose to measure position or both chose to measure momentum.
It would seem that the state of the particle prior to the second measurement was completely defined by the results of the first measurement. In other words, the state of the second particle is set into a definite state (using quantum-mechanical jargon, the state is said to “collapse”) the instant that the first measurement is made. This implies that there is instantaneous action at a distance −− violating everything that Einstein believed about reality (and violating the law that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light). He therefore had no choice but to consider this conclusion of instantaneous action to be false. Therefore quantum mechanics could not be a complete theory of physical reality −− some deeper theory, yet undiscovered, was needed to resolve the paradox.
Bohr, on the other hand, did not hold “reality” so sacred. In his rebuttal to the EPR paper, which he published six months later under the identical title , he rejected Einstein’s criterion for reality. He had no problem with the two observers making the same measurements and finding identical answers. Although one measurement may affect the conditions of the second despite their great distance, no information could be transmitted by this dual measurement process, and hence there was no violation of causality. Bohr’s mind-boggling viewpoint was that reality was nonlocal, meaning that in the quantum world the measurement at one location does influence what is measured somewhere else, even at great distance. Einstein, on the other hand, could not accept a nonlocal reality.
The Intensity Interferometer: Hanbury Brown and Twiss (1956)
Optical physics was surprisingly dormant from the 1930’s through the 1940’s. Most of the research during this time was either on physical optics, like lenses and imaging systems, or on spectroscopy, which was more interested in the physical properties of the materials than in light itself. This hiatus from the photon was about to change dramatically, not driven by physicists, but driven by astronomers.
The development of radar technology during World War II enabled the new field of radio astronomy both with high-tech receivers and with a large cohort of scientists and engineers trained in radio technology. In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s radio astronomy was starting to work with long baselines to better resolve radio sources in the sky using interferometery. The first attempts used coherent references between two separated receivers to provide a common mixing signal to perform field-based detection. However, the stability of the reference was limiting, especially for longer baselines.
In 1950, a doctoral student in the radio astronomy department of the University of Manchester, R. Hanbury Brown, was given the task to design baselines that could work at longer distances to resolve smaller radio sources. After struggling with the technical difficulties of providing a coherent “local” oscillator for distant receivers, Hanbury Brown had a sudden epiphany one evening. Instead of trying to reference the field of one receiver to the field of another, what if, instead, one were to reference the intensity of one receiver to the intensity of the other, specifically correlating the noise on the intensity? To measure intensity requires no local oscillator or reference field. The size of an astronomical source would then show up in how well the intensity fluctuations correlated with each other as the distance between the receivers was changed. He did a back of the envelope calculation that gave him hope that his idea might work, but he needed more rigorous proof if he was to ask for money to try out his idea. He tracked down Richard Twiss at a defense research lab and the two working out the theory of intensity correlations for long-baseline radio interferometry. Using facilities at the famous Jodrell Bank Radio Observatory at Manchester, they demonstrated the principle of their intensity interferometer and measured the angular size of Cygnus A and Cassiopeia A, two of the strongest radio sources in the Northern sky.
One of the surprising side benefits of the intensity interferometer over field-based interferometry was insensitivity to environmental phase fluctuations. For radio astronomy the biggest source of phase fluctuations was the ionosphere, and the new intensity interferometer was immune to its fluctuations. Phase fluctuations had also been the limiting factor for the Michelson stellar interferometer which had limited its use to only about half a dozen stars, so Hanbury Brown and Twiss decided to revisit visible stellar interferometry using their new concept of intensity interferometry.
To illustrate the principle for visible wavelengths, Hanbury Brown and Twiss performed a laboratory experiment to correlate intensity fluctuations in two receivers illuminated by a common source through a beam splitter. The intensity correlations were detected and measured as a function of path length change, illustrating an excess correlation in noise for short path lengths that decayed as the path length increased. They published their results in Nature magazine in 1956 that immediately ignited a firestorm of protest from physicists .
In the 1950’s, many physicists had embraced the discrete properties of the photon and had developed a misleading mental picture of photons as individual and indivisible particles that could only go one way or another from a beam splitter, but not both. Therefore, the argument went, if the photon in an attenuated beam was detected in one detector at the output of a beam splitter, then it cannot be detected at the other. This would produce an anticorrelation in coincidence counts at the two detectors. However, the Hanbury Brown Twiss (HBT) data showed a correlation from the two detectors. This launched an intense controversy in which some of those who accepted the results called for a radical new theory of the photon, while most others dismissed the HBT results as due to systematics in the light source. The heart of this controversy was quickly understood by the Nobel laureate E. M Purcell. He correctly pointed out that photons are bosons and are indistinguishable discrete particles and hence are likely to “bunch” together, according to quantum statistics, even under low light conditions . Therefore, attenuated “chaotic” light would indeed show photodetector correlations, even if the average photon number was less than a single photon at a time, the photons would still bunch.
The bunching of photons in light is a second order effect that moves beyond the first-order interference effects of Young’s double slit, but even here the quantum nature of light is not required. A semiclassical theory of light emission from a spectral line with a natural bandwidth also predicts intensity correlations, and the correlations are precisely what would be observed for photon bunching. Therefore, even the second-order HBT results, when performed with natural light sources, do not distinguish between classical and quantum effects in the experimental results. But this reliance on natural light sources was about to change fundmaentally with the invention of the laser.
Invention of the Laser : Ted Maiman (1959)
One of the great scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century was the nearly simultaneous yet independent realization by several researchers around 1951 (by Charles H. Townes of Columbia University, by Joseph Weber of the University of Maryland, and by Alexander M. Prokhorov and Nikolai G. Basov at the Lebedev Institute in Moscow) that clever techniques and novel apparati could be used to produce collections of atoms that had more electrons in excited states than in ground states. Such a situation is called a population inversion. If this situation could be attained, then according to Einstein’s 1917 theory of photon emission, a single photon would stimulate a second photon, which in turn would stimulate two additional electrons to emit two identical photons to give a total of four photons −− and so on. Clearly this process turns a single photon into a host of photons, all with identical energy and phase.
Charles Townes and his research group were the first to succeed in 1953 in producing a device based on ammonia molecules that could work as an intense source of coherent photons. The initial device did not amplify visible light, but amplified microwave photons that had wavelengths of about 3 centimeters. They called the process microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation, hence the acronym “MASER”. Despite the significant breakthrough that this invention represented, the devices were very expensive and difficult to operate. The maser did not revolutionize technology, and some even quipped that the acronym stood for “Means of Acquiring Support for Expensive Research”. The maser did, however, launch a new field of study, called quantum electronics, that was the direct descendant of Einstein’s 1917 paper. Most importantly, the existence and development of the maser became the starting point for a device that could do the same thing for light.
The race to develop an optical maser (later to be called laser, for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) was intense. Many groups actively pursued this holy grail of quantum electronics. Most believed that it was possible, which made its invention merely a matter of time and effort. This race was won by Theodore H. Maiman at Hughes Research Laboratory in Malibu California in 1960 . He used a ruby crystal that was excited into a population inversion by an intense flash tube (like a flash bulb) that had originally been invented for flash photography. His approach was amazingly simple −− blast the ruby with a high-intensity pulse of light and see what comes out −− which explains why he was the first. Most other groups had been pursuing much more difficult routes because they believed that laser action would be difficult to achieve.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Maiman’s discovery was that it demonstrated that laser action was actually much simpler than people anticipated, and that laser action is a fairly common phenomenon. His discovery was quickly repeated by other groups, and then additional laser media were discovered such as helium-neon gas mixtures, argon gas, carbon dioxide gas, garnet lasers and others. Within several years, over a dozen different material and gas systems were made to lase, opening up wide new areas of research and development that continues unabated to this day. It also called for new theories of optical coherence to explain how coherent laser light interacted with matter.
Coherent States : Glauber (1963)
The HBT experiment had been performed with attenuated chaotic light that had residual coherence caused by the finite linewidth of the filtered light source. The theory of intensity correlations for this type of light was developed in the 1950’s by Emil Wolf and Leonard Mandel using a semiclassical theory in which the statistical properties of the light was based on electromagnetics without a direct need for quantized photons. The HBT results were fully consistent with this semiclassical theory. However, after the invention of the laser, new “coherent” light sources became available that required a fundamentally quantum depiction.
Roy Glauber was a theoretical physicist who received his PhD working with Julian Schwinger at Harvard. He spent several years as a post-doc at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study starting in 1949 at the time when quantum field theory was being developed by Schwinger, Feynman and Dyson. While Feynman was off in Brazil for a year learning to play the bongo drums, Glauber filled in for his lectures at Cal Tech. He returned to Harvard in 1952 in the position of an assistant professor. He was already thinking about the quantum aspects of photons in 1956 when news of the photon correlations in the HBT experiment were published, and when the laser was invented three years later, he began developing a theory of photon correlations in laser light that he suspected would be fundamentally different than in natural chaotic light.
Because of his background in quantum field theory, and especially quantum electrodynamics, it was a fairly easy task to couch the quantum optical properties of coherent light in terms of Dirac’s creation and annihilation operators of the electromagnetic field. Related to the minimum-uncertainty wave functions derived initially by Schrödinger in the late 1920’s, Glauber developed a “coherent state” operator that was a minimum uncertainty state of the quantized electromagnetic field . This coherent state represents a laser operating well above the lasing threshold and predicted that the HBT correlations would vanish. Glauber was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2005 for his work on such “Glauber” states in quantum optics.
Single-Photon Optics: Kimble and Mandel (1977)
Beyond introducing coherent states, Glauber’s new theoretical approach, and parallel work by George Sudarshan around the same time , provided a new formalism for exploring quantum optical properties in which fundamentally quantum processes could be explored that could not be predicted using only semiclassical theory. For instance, one could envision producing photon states in which the photon arrivals at a detector could display the kind of anti-bunching that had originally been assumed (in error) by the critics of the HBT experiment. A truly one-photon state, also known as a Fock state or a number state, would be the extreme limit in which the quantum field possessed a single quantum that could be directed at a beam splitter and would emerge either from one side or the other with complete anti-correlation. However, generating such a state in the laboratory remained a challenge.
In 1975 by Carmichel and Walls predicted that resonance fluorescence could produce quantized fields that had lower correlations than coherent states . In 1977 H. J. Kimble, M. Dagenais and L. Mandel demonstrated, for the first time, photon antibunching between two photodetectors at the two ports of a beam splitter . They used a beam of sodium atoms pumped by a dye laser.
This first demonstration of photon antibunching represents a major milestone in the history of quantum optics. Taylor’s first-order experiments in 1909 showed no difference between classical electromagnetic waves and a flux of photons. Similarly the second-order HBT experiment of 1956 using chaotic light could be explained equally well using classical or quantum approaches to explain the observed photon correlations. Even laser light (when the laser is operated far above threshold) produced classic “classical” wave effects with only the shot noise demonstrating the discreteness of photon arrivals. Only after the availability of “quantum” light sources, beginning with the work of Kimble and Mandel, could photon numbers be manipulated at will, launching the modern era of quantum optics. Later experiments by them and others have continually improved the control of photon states.
By David D. Nolte, Jan. 18, 2021
1900 – Planck (1901). “Law of energy distribution in normal spectra.” Annalen Der Physik 4(3): 553-563.
1905 – A. Einstein (1905). “Generation and conversion of light with regard to a heuristic point of view.” Annalen Der Physik 17(6): 132-148.
1909 – A. Einstein (1909). “On the current state of radiation problems.” Physikalische Zeitschrift 10: 185-193.
1909 – G.I. Taylor: Proc. Cam. Phil. Soc. Math. Phys. Sci. 15 , 114 (1909) Single photon double-slit experiment
1915 – Millikan, R. A. (1916). “A direct photoelectric determination of planck’s “h.”.” Physical Review 7(3): 0355-0388. Photoelectric effect.
1916 – Einstein, A. (1916). “Strahlungs-Emission un -Absorption nach der Quantentheorie.” Verh. Deutsch. Phys. Ges. 18: 318.. Einstein predicts stimulated emission
1923 –Compton, Arthur H. (May 1923). “A Quantum Theory of the Scattering of X-Rays by Light Elements”. Physical Review. 21 (5): 483–502.
1926 – Lewis, G. N. (1926). “The conservation of photons.” Nature 118: 874-875.. Gilbert Lewis named “photon”
1927 – D. Dirac, P. A. M. (1927). “The quantum theory of the emission and absorption of radiation.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series a-Containing Papers of a Mathematical and Physical Character 114(767): 243-265.
1932 – E. P. Wigner: Phys. Rev. 40, 749 (1932)
1935 – A. Einstein, B. Podolsky, N. Rosen: Phys. Rev. 47 , 777 (1935). EPR paradox.
1935 – N. Bohr: Phys. Rev. 48 , 696 (1935). Bohr’s response to the EPR paradox.
 Einstein, A. (1916). “Strahlungs-Emission un -Absorption nach der Quantentheorie.” Verh. Deutsch. Phys. Ges. 18: 318; Einstein, A. (1917). “Quantum theory of radiation.” Physikalische Zeitschrift 18: 121-128.
 Brown, R. H. and R. Q. Twiss (1956). “Correlation Between Photons in 2 Coherent Beams of Light.” Nature177(4497): 27-29;  R. H. Brown and R. Q. Twiss, “Test of a new type of stellar interferometer on Sirius,” Nature, vol. 178, no. 4541, pp. 1046-1048, (1956).
 Glauber, R. J. (1963). “Photon Correlations.” Physical Review Letters 10(3): 84.
 Sudarshan, E. C. G. (1963). “Equivalence of semiclassical and quantum mechanical descriptions of statistical light beams.” Physical Review Letters 10(7): 277-&.; Mehta, C. L. and E. C. Sudarshan (1965). “Relation between quantum and semiclassical description of optical coherence.” Physical Review 138(1B): B274.
Quantum sensors have amazing powers. They can detect the presence of an obstacle without ever interacting with it. For instance, consider a bomb that is coated with a light sensitive layer that sets off the bomb if it absorbs just a single photon. Then put this bomb inside a quantum sensor system and shoot photons at it. Remarkably, using the weirdness of quantum mechanics, it is possible to design the system in such a way that you can detect the presence of the bomb using photons without ever setting it off. How can photons see the bomb without illuminating it? The answer is a bizarre side effect of quantum physics in which quantum wavefunctions are recognized as the root of reality as opposed to the pesky wavefunction collapse at the moment of measurement.
The ability for a quantum system to see an object with light, without exposing it, is uniquely a quantum phenomenon that has no classical analog.
All Paths Lead to Feynman
When Richard Feynman was working on his PhD under John Archibald Wheeler at Princeton in the early 1940’s he came across an obscure paper written by Paul Dirac in 1933 that connected quantum physics with classical Lagrangian physics. Dirac had recognized that the phase of a quantum wavefunction was analogous to the classical quantity called the “Action” that arises from Lagrangian physics. Building on this concept, Feynman constructed a new interpretation of quantum physics, known as the “many histories” interpretation, that occupies the middle ground between Schrödinger’s wave mechanics and Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics. One of the striking consequences of the many histories approach is the emergence of the principle of least action—a classical concept—into interpretations of quantum phenomena. In this approach, Feynman considered ALL possible histories for the propagation of a quantum particle from one point to another, he tabulated the quantum action in the phase factor, and he then summed all of these histories.
One of the simplest consequences of the sum over histories is a quantum interpretation of Snell’s law of refraction in optics. When summing over all possible trajectories of a photon from a point above to a point below an interface, there are a subset of paths for which the action integral varies very little from one path in the subset to another. The consequence of this is that the phases of all these paths add constructively, producing a large amplitude to the quantum wavefunction along the centroid of these trajectories. Conversely, for paths far away from this subset, the action integral takes on many values and the phases tend to interfere destructively, canceling the wavefunction along these other paths. Therefore, the most likely path of the photon between the two points is the path of maximum constructive interference and hence the path of stationary action. It is simple so show that this path is none other than the classical path determined by Snell’s Law and equivalently by Fermat’s principle of least time. With the many histories approach, we can add the principle of least (or stationary) action to the list of explanations of Snell’s Law. This argument holds as well for an electron (with mass and a de Broglie wavelength) as it does for a photon, so this not just a coincidence specific to optics but is a fundamental part of quantum physics.
A more subtle consequence of the sum over histories view of quantum phenomena is Young’s double slit experiment for electrons, shown at the top of Fig 1. The experiment consists of a source that emits only a single electron at a time that passes through a double-slit mask to impinge on an electron detection screen. The wavefunction for a single electron extends continuously throughout the full spatial extent of the apparatus, passing through both slits. When the two paths intersect at the screen, the difference in the quantum phases of the two paths causes the combined wavefunction to have regions of total constructive interference and other regions of total destructive interference. The probability of detecting an electron is proportional to the squared amplitude of the wavefunction, producing a pattern of bright stripes separated by darkness. At positions of destructive interference, no electrons are detected when both slits are open. However, if an opaque plate blocks the upper slit, then the interference pattern disappears, and electrons can be detected at those previously dark locations. Therefore, the presence of the object can be deduced by the detection of electrons at locations that should be dark.
Fig. 1 Demonstration of the sum over histories in a double-slit experiment for electrons. In the upper frame, the electron interference pattern on the phosphorescent screen produces bright and dark stripes. No electrons hit the screen in a dark stripe. When the upper slit is blocked (bottom frame), the interference pattern disappears, and an electron can arrive at the location that had previously been dark.
Consider now when the opaque plate is an electron-sensitive detector. In this case, a single electron emitted by the source can be detected at the screen or at the plate. If it is detected at the screen, it can appear at the location of a dark fringe, heralding the presence of the opaque plate. Yet the quantum conundrum is that when the electron arrives at a dark fringe, it must be detected there as a whole, it cannot be detected at the electron-sensitive plate too. So how does the electron sense the presence of the detector without exposing it, without setting it off?
In Feynman’s view, the electron does set off the detector as one possible history. And that history interferes with the other possible history when the electron arrives at the screen. While that interpretation may seem weird, mathematically it is a simple statement that the plate blocks the wavefunction from passing through the upper slit, so the wavefunction in front of the screen, resulting from all possible paths, has no interference fringes (other than possible diffraction from the lower slit). From this point of view, the wavefunction samples all of space, including the opaque plate, and the eventual absorption of a photon one place or another has no effect on the wavefunction. In this sense, it is the wavefunction, prior to any detection event, that samples reality. If the single electron happens to show up at a dark fringe at the screen, the plate, through its effects on the total wavefunction, has been detected without interacting with the photon.
This phenomenon is known as an interaction-free measurement, but there are definitely some semantics issues here. Just because the plate doesn’t absorb a photon, it doesn’t mean that the plate plays no role. The plate certainly blocks the wavefunction from passing through the upper slit. This might be called an “interaction”, but that phrase it better reserved for when the photon is actually absorbed, while the role of the plate in shaping the wavefunction is better described as one of the possible histories.
Quantum Seeing in the Dark
Although Feynman was thinking hard (and clearly) about these issues as he presented his famous lectures in physics at Cal Tech during 1961 to 1963, the specific possibility of interaction-free measurement dates more recently to 1993 when Avshalom C. Elitzur and Lev Vaidman at Tel Aviv University suggested a simple Michelson interferometer configuration that could detect an object half of the time without interacting with it . They are the ones who first pressed this point home by thinking of a light-sensitive bomb. There is no mistaking when a bomb goes off, so it tends to give an exaggerated demonstration of the interaction-free measurement.
The Michelson interferometer for interaction-free measurement is shown in Fig. 2. This configuration uses a half-silvered beamsplitter to split the possible photon paths. When photons hit the beamsplitter, they either continue traveling to the right, or are deflected upwards. After reflecting off the mirrors, the photons again encounter the beamsplitter, where, in each case, they continue undeflected or are reflected. The result is that two paths combine at the beamsplitter to travel to the detector, while two other paths combine to travel back along the direction of the incident beam.
Fig. 2 A quantum-seeing in the dark (QSD) detector with a photo-sensitive bomb. A single photon is sent into the interferometer at a time. If the bomb is NOT present, destructive interference at the detector guarantees that the photon is not detected. However, if the bomb IS present, it destroys the destructive interference and the photon can arrive at the detector. That photon heralds the presence of the bomb without setting it off. (Reprinted from Mind @ Light Speed)
The paths of the light beams can be adjusted so that the beams that combine to travel to the detector experience perfect destructive interference. In this situation, the detector never detects light, and all the light returns back along the direction of the incident beam. Quantum mechanically, when only a single photon is present in the interferometer at a time, we would say that the quantum wavefunction of the photon interferes destructively along the path to the detector, and constructively along the path opposite to the incident beam, and the detector would detect no photons. It is clear that the unobstructed path of both beams results in the detector making no detections.
Now place the light sensitive bomb in the upper path. Because this path is no longer available to the photon wavefunction, the destructive interference of the wavefunction along the detector path is removed. Now when a single photon is sent into the interferometer, three possible things can happen. One, the photon is reflected by the beamsplitter and detonates the bomb. Two, the photon is transmitted by the beamsplitter, reflects off the right mirror, and is transmitted again by the beamsplitter to travel back down the incident path without being detected by the detector. Three, the photon is transmitted by the beamsplitter, reflects off the right mirror, and is reflected off the beamsplitter to be detected by the detector.
In this third case, the photon is detected AND the bomb does NOT go off, which succeeds at quantum seeing in the dark. The odds are much better than for Young’s experiment. If the bomb is present, it will detonate a maximum of 50% of the time. The other 50%, you will either detect a photon (signifying the presence of the bomb), or else you will not detect a photon (giving an ambiguous answer and requiring you to perform the experiment again). When you perform the experiment again, you again have a 50% chance of detonating the bomb, and a 25% chance of detecting it without it detonating, but again a 25% chance of not detecting it, and so forth. All in all, every time you send in a photon, you have one chance in four of seeing the bomb without detonating it. These are much better odds than for the Young’s apparatus where only exact detection of the photon at a forbidden location would signify the presence of the bomb.
It is possible to increase your odds above one chance in four by decreasing the reflectivity of the beamsplitter. In practice, this is easy to do simply by depositing less and less aluminum on the surface of the glass plate. When the reflectivity gets very low, let us say at the level of 1%, then most of the time the photon just travels back along the direction it came and you have an ambiguous result. On the other hand, when the photon does not return, there is an equal probability of detonation as detection. This means that, though you may send in many photons, your odds for eventually seeing the bomb without detonating it are nearly 50%, which is a factor of two better odds than for the half-silvered beamsplitter. A version of this experiment was performed by Paul Kwiat in 1995 as a postdoc at Innsbruck with Anton Zeilinger. It was Kwiat who coined the phrase “quantum seeing in the dark” as a catchier version of “interaction-free measurement” .
A 50% chance of detecting the bomb without setting it off sounds amazing, until you think that there is a 50% chance that it will go off and kill you. Then those odds don’t look so good. But optical phenomena never fail to surprise, and they never let you down. A crucial set of missing elements in the simple Michelson experiment was polarization-control using polarizing beamsplitters and polarization rotators. These are common elements in many optical systems, and when they are added to the Michelson quantum sensor, they can give almost a 100% chance of detecting the bomb without setting it off using the quantum Zeno effect.
The Quantum Zeno Effect
Photons carry polarization as their prime quantum number, with two possible orientations. These can be defined in different ways, but the two possible polarizations are orthogonal to each other. For instance, these polarization pairs can be vertical (V) and horizontal (H), or they can be right circular and left circular. One of the principles of quantum state evolution is that a quantum wavefunction can be maintained in a specific state, even if it has a tendency naturally to drift out of that state, by repeatedly making a quantum measurement that seeks to measure deviations from that state. In practice, the polarization of a photon can be maintained by repeatedly passing it through a polarizing beamsplitter with the polarization direction parallel to the original polarization of the photon. If there is a deviation in the photon polarization direction by a small angle, then a detector on the side port of the polarizing beamsplitter will fire with a probability equal to the square of the sine of the deviation. If the deviation angle is very small, say Δθ, then the probability of measuring the deviation is proportional to (Δθ)2, which is an even smaller number. Furthermore, the probability that the photon will transmit through the polarizing beamsplitter is equal to 1-(Δθ)2 , which is nearly 100%.
This is what happens in Fig. 3 when the photo-sensitive bomb IS present. A single H-polarized photon is injected through a switchable mirror into the interferometer on the right. In the path of the photon is a polarization rotator that rotates the polarization by a small angle Δθ. There is nearly a 100% chance that the photon will transmit through the polarizing beamsplitter with perfect H-polarization reflect from the mirror and return through the polarizing beamsplitter, again with perfect H-polarization to pass through the polarization rotator to the switchable mirror where it reflects, gains another increment to its polarization angle, which is still small, and transmits through the beamsplitter, etc. At each pass, the photon polarization is repeatedly “measured” to be horizontal. After a number of passes N = π/Δθ/2, the photon is switched out of the interferometer and is transmitted through the external polarizing beamsplitter where it is detected at the H-photon detector.
Now consider what happens when the bomb IS NOT present. This time, even though there is a high amplitude for the transmitted photon, there is that Δθ amplitude for reflection out the V port. This small V-amplitude, when it reflects from the mirror, recombines with the H-amplitude at the polarizing beamsplitter to produce a polarization that has the same tilted polarizaton that it started with, sending it back in the direction from which it came. (In this situation, the detector on the “dark” port of the internal beamsplitter never sees the photon because of destructive interference along this path.) The photon is then rotated once more by the polarization rotator, and the photon polarization is rotated again, etc.. Now, after a number of passes N = π/Δθ/2, the photon has acquired a V polarization and is switched out of the interferometer. At the external polarizing beamsplitter it is reflected out of the V-port where it is detected at the V-photon detector.
Fig. 3 Quantum Zeno effect for interaction-free measurement. If the bomb is present, the H-photon detector detects the output photon without setting it off. The switchable mirror ejects the photon after it makes π/Δθ/2 round trips in the polarizing interferometer.
The two end results of this thought experiment are absolutely distinct, giving a clear answer to the question whether the bomb is present or not. If the bomb IS present, the H-detector fires. If the bomb IS NOT present, then the V-detector fires. Through all of this, the chance to set off the bomb is almost zero. Therefore, this quantum Zeno interaction-free measurement detects the bomb with nearly 100% efficiency with almost no chance of setting it off. This is the amazing consequence of quantum physics. The wavefunction is affected by the presence of the bomb, altering the interference effects that allow the polarization to rotate. But the likelihood of a photon being detected by the bomb is very low.
On a side note: Although ultrafast switchable mirrors do exist, the experiment was much easier to perform by creating a helix in the optical path through the system so that there is only a finite number of bounces of the photon inside the cavity. See Ref.  for details.
In conclusion, the ability for a quantum system to see an object with light, without exposing it, is uniquely a quantum phenomenon that has no classical analog. No E&M wave description can explain this effect.
I first wrote about quantum seeing the dark in my 2001 book on the future of optical physics and technology: Nolte, D. D. (2001). Mind at Light Speed : A new kind of intelligence. (New York, Free Press)
More on the story of Feynman and Wheeler and what they were trying to accomplish is told in Chapter 8 of Galileo Unbound on the physics and history of dynamics: Nolte, D. D. (2018). Galileo Unbound: A Path Across Life, the Universe and Everything (Oxford University Press).
Paul Kwiat introduced to the world to interaction-free measurements in 1995 in this illuminating Scientific American article: Kwiat, P., H. Weinfurter and A. Zeilinger (1996). “Quantum seeing in the dark – Quantum optics demonstrates the existence of interaction-free measurements: the detection of objects without light-or anything else-ever hitting them.” Scientific American 275(5): 72-78.
 Elitzur, A. C. and L. Vaidman (1993). “QUANTUM-MECHANICAL INTERACTION-FREE MEASUREMENTS.” Foundations of Physics 23(7): 987-997.
 Kwiat, P., H. Weinfurter, T. Herzog, A. Zeilinger and M. A. Kasevich (1995). “INTERACTION-FREE MEASUREMENT.” Physical Review Letters 74(24): 4763-4766.