Microscope party

Today I held a microscope party, with luck the first of many. It was simply this: My wife and I happen to have several microscopes, most people don't, and microscopes are fun. I invited over a bunch of people and gave suggestions on objects to bring. It was a blast, and if you or a friend happen to be equipped to do so, I can heartily recommend holding such a party yourself.

I put out an email with the following suggestions of objects people could bring (slightly expanded here):

  • Bugs: All sorts, even ones that look boring. Store in fridge to keep safely in torpor.
  • Leaves: Healthy, diseased, or dried; fuzzy, thick (leaf insides are neat!), translucent, or multicolored.
  • Rocks
  • Flowers, fruit, seeds
  • Other small plant structures, such as hairy stems or the resin capsules on a hops strobile
  • LCD and other computer displays (ever wondered what a pixel looks like? it's not always just a simple rectangle)
  • Fabrics
  • Food
  • Feathers (the barbs are fascinating)
  • Items with wear and tear

(You might be wondering why we have microscopes. Well, we happened to be on hand when a university was getting rid of their old classroom lab microscopes and getting fancy new ones. The old ones were lined up with a sign indicating they were free to a good home. Well! We couldn't say no to that, so we took 2 of the portable bench models and 1 larger, more powerful model that is usually mounted to a pole with a clamp. They're all binocular dissecting microscopes, which means you can put 3-dimensional objects on the stage and use both eyes to look at them. It's a much nicer experience than a single-eye microscope that can only take slides, although not as powerful. In this case, up to 34x magnification or so; enough to image many plant cells, but not much in the way of animal cells.)

I spent some time collecting objects and samples from around the city, neighborhood, and yard in the days leading up to the party, and guests brought their own speculative curiosities as well. Microscopes with 30x magnification straddle the boundary between what's visible to a sharp human eye and the truly microscopic world. I might be able to tell that a moth has scales by looking very closely, but I won't gasp in wonder at them until I see them through the lens. You never know what will turn out to be astoundingly beautiful, or aswarm with life, until you try it! I wish I had a microscope-compatible camera, but the lens is too large to look down the narrow eyepiece, and in any case it wouldn't capture binocular vision or the strange movements of microfauna, so textual highlights of the evening will have to suffice:

  • An innocuous brown moth captured from the front porch, when viewed at 34x, became a fantastical creature covered in opalescent white plates, extravagant "feathers" to rival a peacock's tail, and fiery iridescent ridges. The eyes were crystalline and alive, and the proboscis flickered as it rolled and unrolled.
  • The anthers of a lily flower look like nothing so much as sticky saffron grains of rice (the pollen) stuck to a dark grayish brown log. In contrast, Rose of Sharon anthers have convoluted flat white surfaces; the white pollen grains are spherical, covered in tiny spikes. Sunflower pollen is bright yellow and much smaller.
  • Muck collected from the shore of the Alewife Reservation wetland revealed a tiny bivalve, small as a sand grain and hardly visible to the naked eye even when it moved, frantically filtering the aggregated silt for particles of food.
  • There were rotifers and Daphnia and other microorganisms in the pond water, of course. They all had tremendously different ways of moving. I was baffled by a small, flat elliptical creature that moved along its major axis, but also turned around that axis as it swam. Another inchwormed across the bottom, and others jittered like flies through the water, seeming not to traverse the intervening space as they "teleported" short distances. A nematode squiggled as it moved among pondweed leaves.
  • Looking at mosses, Oxalis leaves, and pondweed, we could see the individual cells. From past experience, I know that if we had taken thin layers of an onion's green shoot, we may have been able to make out chloroplasts.
  • An oak leaf's fuzzy galls showed what seemed to be a miniscule white child's ball with purple spots, topped with a wild profusion of knobby, wispy tendrils.
  • A mushroom's cap, upside down, was composed of elegant fins and curves fit for an architecture student's final project, dotted with black spores.
  • A peek into a rotting acorn revealed a tiny grub, perhaps the culprit, attempting to hide in the debris. With the dissecting 'scope, it was possible to move the acorn around and see the grub from different sides without poking it.
  • And many artificial objects: The red-green-blue LCD of a phone, packing material that turned out be a foam of small bubbles, the worn brake pads I had just replaced on my bike.

It was also a delight to rediscover just how exquisitely precise our fingers can be. They're these chubby blunt things a centimeter or so thick, but they're capable of making smooth sub-millimeter adjustments. Using a needle or hair, I was able to shove or flip over objects under the microscope that I couldn't even see with the naked eye.

If you have the means to hold an event like this one, I highly recommend it. Beyond the amazing things I saw, it was also a joy to see other adults expressing unrestrained excitement and amazement, an ability that I think is generally suppressed in us after childhood. For equipment, all you need is a microscope. It looks like $150 is enough for a pretty reasonable quality 'scope, although I haven't looked in detail. (I should see if the local library would like one of our microscopes. It seems like the kind of equipment they might like to be able to offer.) You'll also need a bright light source if there isn't one built in. A 1400 lumen PAR38 LED in a desk lamp works admirably, but any bright light will do. (Prefer white lights over bluish or yellowish ones, for best light quality.) You don't need slides or slide covers; clear plastic lids will do well for both reflected and transmitted light microscopy, and I bet you can fashion a decent slide cover from a square cutout of plastic. As for things to look at... they're all around you.

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