Light is made up of particles called photons and hence inherently is "grainy" (quantized). Quantum optics is the study of the nature and effects of light as quantized photons. The first indication that light might be quantized came from Max Planck in 1899 when he correctly modelled blackbody radiation by assuming that the exchange of energy between light and matter only occurred in discrete amounts he called quanta. It was unknown whether the source of this discreteness was the matter or the light. In 1905, Albert Einstein published the theory of the photoelectric effect. It appeared that the only possible explanation for the effect was the existence of particles of light called photons. Later, Niels Bohr showed that the atoms were also quantized, in the sense that they could only emit discrete amounts of energy. The understanding of the interaction between light and matter following from these developments not only formed the basis of quantum optics but also were crucial for the development of quantum mechanics as a whole. However, the subfields of quantum mechanics dealing with matter-light interaction were principally regarded as research into matter rather than into light and hence, one rather spoke of atom physics and quantum electronics.
This changed with the invention of the maser in 1953 and the laser in 1960. Laser science—i.e., research into principles, design and application of these devices—became an important field, and the quantum mechanics underlying the laser's principles was studied now with more emphasis on the properties of light, and the name quantum optics became customary.
As laser science needed good theoretical foundations, and also because research into these soon proved very fruitful, interest in quantum optics rose. Following the work of Dirac in quantum field theory, George Sudarshan, Roy J. Glauber, and Leonard Mandel applied quantum theory to the electromagnetic field in the 1950s and 1960s to gain a more detailed understanding of photodetection and the statistics of light (see degree of coherence). This led to the introduction of the coherent state as a quantum description of laser light and the realization that some states of light could not be described with classical waves. In 1977, Kimble et al. demonstrated the first source of light which required a quantum description: a single atom that emitted one photon at a time. This was the first conclusive evidence that light was made up of photons. Another quantum state of light with certain advantages over any classical state, squeezed light, was soon proposed. At the same time, development of short and ultrashort laser pulses—created by Q switching and modelocking techniques—opened the way to the study of unimaginably fast ("ultrafast") processes. Applications for solid state research (e.g. Raman spectroscopy) were found, and mechanical forces of light on matter were studied. The latter led to levitating and positioning clouds of atoms or even small biological samples in an optical trap or optical tweezers by laser beam. This, along with Doppler cooling was the crucial technology needed to achieve the celebrated Bose-Einstein condensation.
Other remarkable results are the demonstration of quantum entanglement, quantum teleportation, and (recently, in 1995) quantum logic gates. The latter are of much interest in quantum information theory, a subject which partly emerged from quantum optics, partly from theoretical computer science.
Today's fields of interest among quantum optics researchers include parametric down-conversion, parametric oscillation, even shorter (attosecond) light pulses, use of quantum optics for quantum information, manipulation of single atoms, Bose-Einstein condensates, their application, and how to manipulate them (a sub-field often called atom optics), and much more.
Research into quantum optics that aims to bring photons into use for information transfer and computation is now often called photonics to emphasize the claim that photons and photonics will take the role that electrons and electronics now have.
This kind of use of statistical mechanics is the fundament of most concepts of quantum optics: Light is described in terms of field operators for creation and annihilation of photons—i.e. in the language of quantum electrodynamics.
A frequently encountered state of the light field is the coherent state as introduced by Roy J. Glauber in 1963. This state, which can be used to approximately describe the output of a single-frequency laser well above the laser threshold, exhibits Poissonian photon number statistics. Via certain nonlinear interactions, a coherent state can be transformed into a squeezed coherent state, which can exhibit super- or sub- Poissonean photon statistics. Such light is called squeezed light. Other important quantum aspects are related to correlations of photon statistics between different beams. For example, parametric nonlinear processes can generate so-called twin beams, where ideally each photon of one beam is associated with a photon in the other beam.
Atoms are considered as quantum mechanical oscillators with a discrete energy spectrum with the transitions between the energy eigenstates being driven by the absorption or emission of light according to Einstein's theory with the oscillator strength depending on the quantum numbers of the states.
For solid state matter one uses the energy band models of solid state physics. This is important as understanding how light is detected (typically by a solid-state device that absorbs it) is crucial for understanding experiments.