8 - Photon statistics  pp. 127-154

Photon statistics

By Harry Paul and Igor Jex

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Measuring the diameter of stars

As mentioned several times already, the particle character of light is best illustrated by the photoelectric effect. This effect can be exploited in the detection of single photons by photocounting. The analysis of such counting data allows us, as will be discussed in detail in this chapter, to gain a deeper insight into the properties of electromagnetic fields. We can recognize the “fine structure” of the radiation field – in the form of fluctuation processes – which was hidden from us when using previous techniques relying only on the eye or a photographic plate, i.e. techniques limited to time averaged intensity measurements.

The credit for developing the basic technique for intensity fluctuation measurements goes to the British scientists R. Hanbury Brown and R. Q. Twiss, who became the fathers of a new optical discipline which investigates statistical laws valid for photocounting under various physical situations. When we talk of studies of “photon statistics” it is these investigations that we are referring to.

Interestingly enough, it was a practical need, namely the improvement in experimental possibilities of measuring the (apparent) diameters of fixed stars, that gave rise to the pioneering work by Hanbury Brown and Twiss. Because the topic is physically exciting, we will go into more detail.

It is well known that the angular diameters of fixed stars – observed from Earth – appear to be so small that the available telescopes are not able to resolve the stars spatially.