At low light levels, the visual system detects and counts photon absorptions with a reliability close to limits set by statistical fluctuations in the number of absorbed photons. Thus the rod photoreceptors that provide the input signals to the dark-adapted visual system act as nearly perfect photon counters. This elegant performance is possible because light detection in the rods satisfies four functional requirements: high quantum efficiency, sufficient amplification to produce a measurable response, low dark noise, and low trial-to-trial variability in the elementary response. The rod meets these requirements using biochemical reactions rather than the solid-state reactions of silicon detectors, yet its performance equals or exceeds that of man-made detectors in several ways.
©1998 American Physical Society