IDEA #50. Acquire some kind of magnifying glass or pocket microscope and look at snowflakes, sand, dirt, or anything else that you think might be kind of interesting. Your food might be kind of an interesting place to start.
When Antonie van Leeuwenhoek “discovered” the miracle of optical magnification in the 17th century, he opened up an unseen world. Even relatively low degrees of magnification—ten to twenty times normal size, referred to as “power” and abbreviated as 10x to 20x—can reveal extraordinary and wholly unexpected details in the most common objects. Almost any piece of food, for instance, takes on a whole new appearance under magnification (and perhaps should not be the first subject of a squeamish eater’s attentions in this activity), and the surface of one’s own skin or even a hair has amazing facets and features. Even a dollar bill has secrets that unfold only to the viewer whose vision is aided by a strong lens.
A simple magnifying glass should be easy to find; a sewing supply store or a department store should offer a choice. For a few dollars more many hobby stores have specialized magnifiers, some with battery illumination, and specialty electronics and scientific supply stores have a variety of small scopes of 30 power or more that can be used to obtain stunning close-up views of grains of salt (whose cubical crystalline structure is clearly visible) or sand—or the anatomical details of a dead insect.
The next level of interest and investment in this activity involves the acquisition of a microscope. As with most optical technology, quality is proportional to cost, but it may be possible to obtain the use of a school microscope or a ‘scope belonging to an individual. The quality of the lenses, the strength of the lenses, and the source of illumination can vary dramatically, and it might be well for the novice microscope user to start by using prepared slides (of blood cells, fungal spores, dust, plant cells, to give some common examples) under the direction of a knowledgeable elder. Too much magnification can actually be a distraction, as the level of detail is so great that a sense of what is being viewed is utterly lost.
Wanting to see the tiny “essence” of things can become something of a compulsion, once the discovery is made that even smooth objects are in fact creviced and canyoned or that a drop of pond water can contain a myriad of life-forms. All such activity serves to train the observer in a kind of critical thought, to look beyond surfaces and to regard apparent clarity with some skepticism. What Leeuwenhoek gave the world his device can still provide intellectual sustenance for a curious youngster.