Microscopy and Money

by Richard L. Howey, Wyoming, USA



Recently we have been told that the world economy has lost at least hundreds of billions of dollars but, more realistically, several trillion dollars. I read the newspapers and learn that giant corporations that are “too large to be allowed to fail”, medium-sized companies, small businesses, and millions of individual investors, home buyers, not to mention, universities, retirement funds, research institutes, museums, and cultural institutions have lost staggering amounts of money and are “down sizing” which is a euphemism for throwing a lot of people out of work. I still have a big question: If the money is lost, where do we look to find it? I admit that economics is an utter mystery to me in spite of the fact (or perhaps because of it) that I was a member of 3 doctoral committees in Economics. There is still just as much money in the world now as there was before the crisis started; in fact, there’s more because the treasuries of almost every country have been printing more. If I had $1,000 dollars in saving in the bank, it’s still there; it hasn’t gone on vacation and gotten lost. Some economists tell me that what has happened is that my money isn’t worth as much as it was before. However, in the newspapers, I find full page advertisements by retailers offering me 30, 40, 50, even 70 percent discounts. What this suggests to me is that this stuff was seriously overpriced in the first place by some quite greedy people and apparently, a lot of them weren’t as bright as they thought and seriously miscalculated. Much of the economic crisis doesn’t, of course, have anything to do with coinage or paper money; rather it has to do with electronic and paper transactions of quite a different sort. So, in some respects, what we have is a lot of “Monopoly” money floating around and, in the end, a whole series of psychological con games in which sometimes even the perpetrators themselves fall victim to the deceptions and illusions.

How much is a wristwatch worth? Well, obviously that depends on a whole series of factors, However, there are certain basic features that are common denominators: 1) It should keep good time, 2) It should be easily readable, 3) It should be well-built to be reliable over a long period of time, 4) It should be sturdy, 5) It should be comfortable to wear so that you don’t feel like you have a wall clock strapped to your wrist, 6) It’s very desirable to have a waterproof watch, 7) In these days, a watch that doesn’t have to be wound is also an asset. Then there are a number of extras to consider. If you’re a SCUBA diver, then you want one that is super waterproof and also will withstand the pressure of the water. Others may want a stop watch capability; yet others a calendar, and so on. The truth is that most of us can get by nicely with a Timex that costs under $50. No one NEEDS a $250,000 Patek Philippe wristwatch. Such a device is an ostentatious and obnoxious display of wealth and status, no matter how philanthropic that individual may otherwise be. Apparently, there have not been throughout history enough beheadings of tyrants and pompous dandies for human societies as a whole to have gotten the message that the labor of the poor, the unfortunate, and the uneducated should not be exploited to support a social, economic, and political cast system. In the 21st Century, the concept of “royalty” should wither away and die.

No watch in the world is worth $250,000. It may be a work of art with superb craftsmanship, fine metal work, inlaid with precious stones and it may indeed be one of a kind. However, what gives it its value is a series of largely psychological factors. Gold is not particularly rare; even fine diamonds are not exceptionally rare. If too much of a “precious” commodity is discovered, those individuals and companies which control the production and distribution begin to manipulate the market, including hiding “surpluses” away in vaults. After all, the sudden appearance of a few tons of brilliant cut blue-white diamonds would ruin the market. People want things that are rare or even better, unique. Picasso, in his later life, refused to sign canvases until they were sold, knowing full well that the “value” was ultimately in the signature. He produced thousands of paintings–some of them great, some experimental, some of them mediocre trifles.

There are only 35 authenticated Vermeer paintings these days reduced from the previous 43 and he certainly won’t be producing any more. However, Han van Meegeren did; painting fakes that fooled curators and art connoisseurs–a fascinating chapter in art history. There are individuals who are totally obsessed with having something unique, something that no one else can have and so a Vermeer becomes worth a staggering amount of money. To me such a passion is an indicator of a pathological ego-insecurity; for such individuals only such objects can give them identity, respect, and status. This means, of course, that the authenticity of the work is crucial. There is a contemporary of Rembrandt’s named Jan Lievens, a superb and recently ‘”rediscovered” painter. In fact, Lievens and Rembrandt shared a studio for a while and they modeled for each other for portraits. Lievens was a consummate artist and in his still life with books, one can see an example of his extraordinary technical facility and you can even see the lines of the individual pages. Over the years, some of his paintings were “authenticated” as Rembrandt’s but, not to worry, even those that have been “re-authenticated” as Lievens are worth several million dollars. However, if someone produces a brilliant forgery, suddenly a rare “Manet” can become almost worthless. It’s still the same painting that elicited all the “Ohs” and “Ahs” from the cognoscenti, but there has been a radical shift in attitude toward it. A GREAT work of art has suddenly become a FORGERY; in other words, the shift is a psychological one. It seems to me that this is a bit like, in fact, a lot like, in truth, almost exactly what happened in terms of the world economy.

So, what in the world does all of this have to do with microscopy? Well, microscopes are very helpful in finding counterfeit money and in detecting art forgeries. However, I had something else in mind; namely, whether or not this is a good time to make a major microscope purchase or go in search of exotic accessories at bargain prices. This assumes that you have a supply of water, hydrogen peroxide, vodka, whiskey, etc. or what is known in the financial area as “liquidity”.

I have already noticed that a few dealers who have used, as well as new, microscopes and accessories are lowering prices on some used items. Most people love bargains, but not those who are in marketing or advertising companies or corporations. Their jobs are to convince you that a) you really need their product, b) the product is of superior quality, c) it is stylish, hi-tech, cutting-edge, d) these factors justify its high cost, e) it will set you apart (along with thousands or millions of others who buy their product), f) that it will give you an irresistible, dazzling smile, and g) it will make you sexy. And, of course, according to the traditional stereotype, we mad scientists need all the help we can get.

Almost every serious amateur gets to the point of lusting after a large research microscope with lots of accessories and interestingly many of the older, distinguished brand instruments have come down in price significantly with the advent of digital photography. It used to be a mark of prestige and status to have not merely a microscope that would with the proper adapters accept an external camera, but a very large microscope system with a built-in automatic camera. Some of them even had two cameras, so that you could have 35mm and a 4"x5" camera as well. See Spike Walker’s webpage “The Ultraphot Shop” and pay attention in particular to the first section called “Large Objects of Desire”: http://www.the-ultraphot-shop.org.uk/ The Zeiss Ultraphot II had retractable handles built into the base and it required two people to move it. It also had its own metal table with drawers for accessories and the transformers for the light sources were built into drawers.

The Austrian Reichert Zetopan, Polyvar, and Univar and the Olympus Vanox are also large, heavy, sturdy, modular instruments which were superbly engineered. If you buy one of these, you need to go to your local university’s athletic department and hire a couple of gymnasts who are strong and not awkward–don’t get wrestlers or football players–and have them help you move your new (old) acquisition. It’s important for them to be able to move efficiently and quietly before your wife finds out what you’ve bought. Once it’s installed, you can tell her that it can’t possibly be removed after all the trouble you went to to get it and align it and that you obtained it at only 10% of the original selling price.

In purchasing a used first-class instrument there are a number of things you need to be concerned about, especially that it is still a first-class instrument in terms of condition and performance and that it has all the accessories you want or else that such accessories are still available.

1) Check as thoroughly as possible on the reputation of the seller.

2) Ask a lot of very specific questions.

a) Is there any delamination or scratching in any of the optics?

b) Do both the fine and coarse focus mechanisms work smoothly? In some microscopes, especially with regard to the fine focus mechanism, getting repairs can become an expensive nightmare.

c) Does the mechanical stage move freely and smoothly?

d) Does the condenser mount move freely and smoothly?

e) Ask about illuminators and power supplies. Be certain that they are safe. Some of the old transformers were quite hazardous.

f) If the instrument has polarizing accessories, ask very specifically about delamination.

g) Ask about filters and any modules that can be inserted in the light path, such as compensators or fluorescence cubes.

h) Ask if the instrument has ever been knocked over or dropped. Sometimes physical shock that does no visible external damage can weaken or misalign internal components.

I) Finally, ask the seller if he or she knows of any defects in the system, however minor.

3) If you don’t care whether or not the film camera systems are working, then you have an advantage, but make sure that the system you’re interested in can be adapted for digital photomicrography at reasonable expense.

In their day, some of these old camera systems were capable of providing spectacular results containing important information for researchers. Now digital cameras rival film and although the initial cost for a good quality digital camera and adapter along with computer processing software is significant, the cost pales compared to the price of film and processing. On some days when I am capturing polarized images of crystals, I may take over 300 pictures. I shutter (I know—shudder, but I couldn’t resist) to think what the color film and processing fees would be. Another great advantage of digital is that you can get immediate results and you can dump poor images and if a particular series doesn’t produce any truly satisfactory images, say a sequence of shots of ciliate protozoa, then you can make some adjustments and try taking a new set of pictures. So, the point is, whatever sort of microscope you are considering, make sure that it will readily accommodate a digital camera and the necessary adapters. Almost always, it’s highly preferable to have a separate port for a camera rather than trying to use one of the binocular viewing eyepieces.

There are a few exceptions, especially with older microscopes or with newer, more modest ones. I have a marvelous old Leitz Greenough binocular stereo microscope with the fixed magnification, long interchangeable lenses which will provide magnifications from 8x to 216x. Since it has paired oculars of 8x, 12.5x, and 18x and objectives of 1x, 2x, 4x, 8x, and 12x, it provides a very nice range of magnifications.

The only camera I have is a Nikon 995 which is a “point and shoot” and not an SLR. Any camera where there is external movement of the lens system requires special adapters; since mine doesn’t move externally, that’s not issue. Furthermore, it is compact and light enough that attaching it to one of the angled eyepiece tubes doesn’t present a problem

Although my Nikon 995 is, in this hi-tech, exponentially advancing age, old-fashioned, if not obsolete, it serves me very well. My images are only 3.4 megapixels and aren’t prize winning, but they serve their purpose for my friends and for my articles in Micscape. I’ll provide you with a few examples just to show you that you don’t have to have the most recent and the most expensive to get some good results. In fact, this may be a very good time to pick up a quality used digital camera.

These 4 images were all taken with the Nikon 995:

A small spherical radiolarian

A lovely colorful tropical beetle

A “knobby” starfish

A mixture of Sodium Bicarbonate, Metformin (a diabetes medication), and Stevia (a natural sweetener) photographed with polarized light

There is one other factor which I haven’t yet mentioned. If you do decide to purchase a glorious older, but first-class research microscope, budget some money to have a first-class microscope technician go through the whole instrument to service it (and, God forbid, make repairs, if necessary), so that what you end up with is a fine microscope that will last you a lifetime with proper care.

Finally, there is perhaps the most critical factor of all–you, the user. You must learn all the subtleties, intricacies, and eccentricities of your particular instrument. Think of your microscope as an optical Stradivarius to which you make love. A great instrument, whether musical or optical, must be courted, cajoled, and caressed and when you learn how to do that, the results that can be achieved are magical.

All comments to the author Richard Howey are welcomed.

Editor's note: Visit Richard Howey's new website at http://rhowey.googlepages.com/home where he plans to share aspects of his wide interests.


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Published in the April 2009 edition of Micscape Magazine.

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