3.1 Interference of a Single Photon
The kinds of study originally conducted by Thomas Young - in particular, the celebrated "double slit" experiment that we briefly examined in Chapter 1 (see Fig. 1) - provide a capacity to reveal far more than the wave nature of light, important as that is. True enough, the observed characteristic fringe pattern, when monochromatic light passes through two closely spaced slits onto a screen, appears to be simply explicable on the basis of waves from each slit undergoing constructive and destructive interference at different positions on the screen. Yet, astonishingly, these patterns of interference are still exhibited when individual photons of a low-intensity input beam reach the screen one at a time, showing that it cannot in fact be a matter of different photons having to interfere with each other. Indeed, Dirac enunciated the general principle that photons can never directly interact with each other. The double slit and other such experiments indicate that each photon interacts in a delocalized, wave-like manner with both slits at the same time. Successive experiments build interference patterns that conform to an exact mathematical distribution formula, but the position at which an individual photon is detected in any particular instance cannot be predicted; this is a quintessential illustration of quantum uncertainty.
Using the path integral approach of quantum theory, the phenomenon is more accurately represented by introducing a summation over all possible routes between the source and the screen on which the pattern appears, signifying an entire "lifetime" for each photon involved in the experiment. This relates to the fact that the actual trajectory is unknown without an observation, and thus we only obtain the probabilities of the photon striking the screen at different positions and times; all trajectories (potentialities) must be considered in a superposition. Each route is considered equally probable, and the variation in phase produces quantum interference. The differences in phase of each trajectory, at varying positions on the screen, generates the fringe pattern. An intriguing variation on this experiment involves "marking" the photons so that the actual route of each photon to the screen is known. Remarkably, in such a case, the fringe patterns do not appear because quantum interference cannot occur. A consequence of the observation of the photon route is an effect that, in other quantum mechanical connections, is known as a collapse of the wavefunction. However, it is possible for the fringe patterns to reappear when information on the route of the photons is lost; this is known as a quantum eraser.