What is resolution? A statistical minimax testing perspective on super-resolution microscopy


Kulaitis G, Munk A, Werner F


The Annals of Statistic


Ann. Statist. 49(4): 2292-2312 (August 2021).


As a general rule of thumb the resolution of a light microscope (i.e., the ability to discern objects) is predominantly described by the full width at half maximum (FWHM) of its point spread function (psf)—the diameter of the blurring density at half of its maximum. Classical wave optics suggests a linear relationship between FWHM and resolution also manifested in the well-known Abbe and Rayleigh criteria, dating back to the end of the 19th century. However, during the last two decades conventional light microscopy has undergone a shift from microscopic scales to nanoscales. This increase in resolution comes with the need to incorporate the random nature of observations (light photons) and challenges the classical view of discernability, as we argue in this paper. Instead, we suggest a statistical description of resolution obtained from such random data. Our notion of discernability is based on statistical testing whether one or two objects with the same total intensity are present. For Poisson measurements, we get linear dependence of the (minimax) detection boundary on the FWHM, whereas for a homogeneous Gaussian model the dependence of resolution is nonlinear. Hence, at small physical scales modeling by homogeneous gaussians is inadequate, although often implicitly assumed in many reconstruction algorithms. In contrast, the Poisson model and its variance stabilized Gaussian approximation seem to provide a statistically sound description of resolution at the nanoscale. Our theory is also applicable to other imaging setups, such as telescopes.