A Micro-April Fools’ Month

by Richard L. Howey, Wyoming, USA



I know this dubious celebration is only supposed to occur on one day–April 1–but since Micscape’s new issues only appear on the 13th of each month, I have taken the liberty of extending the fun up to May 13th–so, stay on your toes. Some of my friends think that I have a wicked sense of humor, so I’ll share a few ideas with you for April Fools’ and let you judge.

As some of you know, I have a long-standing fascination with the skeletal structure of echinoderms and recently have been quite absorbed with sea urchins. As many of you know, their shells or tests consist of a large number of plates which are fused together but at zig-zag suture lines which can be neatly broken apart, if you are very meticulous and lucky. For some time, I have had the idea of taking a nice large specimen, removing all the spines and then breaking the plates apart along the suture lines and sending the whole collection including the spines to my sister to reassemble. I should mention that she is a great fan of jig-saw puzzles and, I ask you, what greater gift could a brother give than one such as this that would produce an object of great natural beauty when reconstructed. I took a lovely medium sized urchin from which all the spines had already been removed. I’ll show you 2 views, the second including a penny to give you an idea of the relative size.

And now I’ll show you 2 views of the pieces which constitute the pieces of the puzzle.

So, it takes a few years–big deal!

Recently a student friend of mine who has gotten interested in sea cucumbers was over visiting and I gave him 2 specimens of Eupentacta pygmaea which, just under the surface of the skin have thousands upon thousands of microscopic skeletal structures called spicules or ossicles which are calcareous (composed largely of calcium carbonate). I subsequently told him that the condition for his continuing to possess these specimens and get additional ones of different species was that he had to take one of the specimens and count how many spicules it has–April Fool!

Microscopic counting games, of course, present endless possibilities which can rival the medieval poser of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. (As, everyone knows, the answer is 42.) Another task one might impose for a would-be naturalist is to determine how many hairs there are on a live grizzly bear. Or to determine how long a skunk can hold its breath when being held underwater.

Selecting the right person to be the object of these special ministrations is, of course, crucial. Every teenager today knows that it’s cool to exaggeratedly show boredom and contempt for anything that adults are interested in, so you have to convince them that what you’re doing is really quite special, but you know that they wouldn’t be interested, so you won’t even bother them with it. In this way, you may get them to condescendingly show a disinterested curiosity. Adults who are enthusiastic beginners are among the best candidates because they have little experience and background and they are eager to be amazed.

When the surly teenager saunters over to “check out” what you’re looking at that’s “so special”, you can tell him or her that it’s a slide made over 200 years ago by a deaf monk which shows sperm cells from the tiny crustacean called an ostracod and that these sperm are the largest known in size, in both relative and absolute terms, of any animal. If the teenager is a male, he will pretend to be blasé, but now he’s curious because it has to do with sex. If the teenager is female, she will wrinkle her nose in disgust, but will take a look just so she can tell her friends about what an “utterly gross” experience she had.

Almost all of us who are aficionados of microscopy have at one time or another purchased a box of old slides which had a few really disastrously bad preparations in the collection. Here is the chance to make use of one of those useless slides. Take the slide and while he is trying to look aloof or she is trying to get ready to be offended, you take the slide and, while they’re not looking, smear the surface of the cover glass with Vaseline. Set it up on the stage of the microscope and let them have a look. At this point, concoct an excuse to leave the room for 5 minutes or so. When you return, you’ll find them complaining that it’s all just a blur and they can’t see anything. Now, you have an opportunity to display all those dormant, unrealized thespian talents of yours: “What have you done? Do you know the value of that single slide?” If these are your own children, you can really crank it up. “I’m going to take this out of your allowances and it’s going to take over a year to settle this.” To keep teenagers properly aligned in this world, regular doses of guilt are essential. After a couple of minutes of fulminating, snatch the slide off the stage, look at it and then shout “April Fool.” They will, of course, be furious with you, so tell them forcefully and immediately that if they don’t shape up and start behaving like reasonable facsimiles of human beings, you will cancel their allowances altogether. Money, as we have learned from Wall Street recently, is power.

Children, from the ages of about 7 to 12 years old, are generally curious and highly gullible, but have short attention spans. Young children are problematic in a way, because while they are often highly gullible, they are sometimes perversely stubborn about not believing something which they simply choose not to believe (rather like politicians). Take a drop of a rich Paramecium culture and put it on the microscope stage and let them watch all the busy activity. The children will by this age undoubtedly be familiar with skate boarding and may even own their own such instrument of mayhem and misery. Now, you tell them that Paramecia are not only “into” skate boarding, but that they build their own using other organisms from their environment–a desmid Closterium for the board and diatoms for the wheels. I can hear them saying, “Oh, wow! Cool!” Now, you’ve got them. Take them into your computer and show them this image of the Paramecium skate board.

Then you describe to them how the Paramecia having built them, swim up and come diving down and land on the board with sufficient force to take them out of the field of view as they skate across the slide. Assure them that you have witnessed this spectacular event a number of times and then after 3 or 5 years, shout–“April Fool”.

With adults who are beginners, you have to be a bit more sophisticated. They can be just as gullible as children when set up properly, but they do have more experience of the world so one has to lure them in in a more intricate fashion. Now, remember that these are people with enthusiasm who are eager to be impressed and explore new dimensions of microscopy, which provides you with the opportunity for some rather devilish, but innocent, fun. Ultimately, it’s a test of character; if they are offended and get all huffy, then they wouldn’t be very desirable friends anyway, so–good riddance! No sense of humor; it is unimaginable to me how people can survive in this world without a richly developed sense of humor.

So, one of the first ploys is the old “bait and switch” con game, only in this case, you don’t even need to make a switch, you just have to be an adept prestidigitator of the truth–in short, an accomplished liar. There are many possibilities here so, in part, it depends upon your diabolical creativity.

Take a clean depression slide, put some material (ordinary sand) from a small vial in the depression, add immersion oil and a cover glass and place it on the stage of your stereo-dissecting microscope. Now, you tell your “victim” that what he or she is about to behold is of exceptional rarity and that you acquired this sample from a retired micro-paleontologist. Then, you inform him or her that the sample consists of tiny fossil gall stones from trilobites and that careful observation reveals how the material was laid down in minute rings that constitute distinct layers. Now, who could resist a rarity like that? After a minute or two, your observer will complain that there aren’t any specimens of the slide that correspond to your description, at which point, you rather loftily assure them that this is a “pure “ sample and there is nothing else on the slide, suggesting that they aren’t looking carefully enough. After another period of observation consisting of slightly less than 5 minutes, you will hear the same complaint repeated. So, with mock exasperation, you sit down at the microscope, adjust the magnification and take several minutes fiddling with the illumination. “There now,” you say, “you can’t possibly miss the concentric rings.” So, your friend sits down again and, after a minute or two, declares, “Ah, yes. Now I see them. This is exciting.” At this point, it’s up to you to decide whether to yell “April Fool” or to let your friend wander through life believing that he or she has had the extraordinary experience of seeing concentric stratifications of gall bladder stones of extinct trilobites.

Another possibility is to promise the stunning experience of watching crystals form before their very eyes under polarized light. The microscope is set up with crossed polars, that is, the filters are set in such a way that when one looks through the microscope, the field is completely dark and this is, of course, what makes the formation of crystals all the more spectacular. For this lovely deception, place a drop of colored distilled water on a slide without a cover glass and then give instructions. You tell them that at first, they will see nothing but the dark field and that they will have to be patient and that as the liquid evaporates, the crystals will begin to form and when this happens, it will occur rather rapidly, so they must pay close attention. This is a good test of character, tenacity, and the bullheadedness of your friend (or soon to be former friend). Since we have extended this to April Fools’ Month, you have the opportunity to try this out on a fair number of people and keep a record of how long they will sit there looking at a dark field before they start to protest. At this point, you have several options depending on your S.Q. (Sadism Quotient)

You can tell them that they have been breathing too heavily on the liquid thus disrupting the osmotic ionic balance of the alpha and gamma birefringent contrast planes and so disorienting the deposition of the crystals and that you will have to make up a new slide.

Make up another slide, only use a solution of ordinary table salt dissolved in water. This time, crystals will form but, if the polarizing filters are crossed, they won’t be able to see them, since sodium chloride is not birefringent. Also, have them wear one of those little dust filter masks like painters use “to avoid a repetition of their breath contaminating the liquid”. This time when they complain that they still can’t see anything, you sit down at the microscope and rotate the polarizer and show them that crystals are indeed present. When they ask you why they couldn’t see them form and why they aren’t displaying any rich colors, you “explain” that they must have eaten something for breakfast, lunch or dinner that the mask isn’t filtering out and that that vaporous odor is disorienting the prismatic interference patterns that conjugate the hyperspatial contrast optical nodules.

At this point, it’s probably politic to yell “April Fool” and then set up a slide of a really gorgeous crystal display like Orange G.

Finally–I could go on and on, but I think it’s better that you bring your own perverse imagination into play–you can tell your friends (what’s left of them)–that you have made a revolutionary discovery and impress upon them the uniqueness and importance of your research by swearing them to secrecy. For this one you need to have done a bit of advance preparation. Take one of your rich Paramecia cultures–always keep cultures of Paramecia on hand, they are useful in myriad ways–add some powdered carmine and let it sit for several hours or even overnight. The carmine particles are extremely fine and are insoluble in water. As the Paramecia feed, they ingest carmine thus staining the food vacuoles a distinctive red. If you allow an adequate period of time, they put on a quite impressive display and indeed, your friends should be impressed. Now, you “explain” to them that you have induced the Paramecia to produce hemoglobin-rich blood cells which will likely lead to a breakthrough in the production of sterile, safe artificial blood for human transfusion. If you are fortunate ( or unfortunate) enough to have some wealthy friends, you might suggest that you would let them invest in the incredible (indeed!) enterprise. If you find one who’s willing to invest millions, start looking for a nice tropical island that doesn’t have an extradition treaty with your country.

The real point, however, is that after you shout “April Fool”, you can have real, responsible fun explaining the phenomenon just observed. The only justification of such pranksterism, in the end, is to use it to educate and enlighten and to make sure that, all things said and done, your “victim” has had as much fun as you have.

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 2010 edition of Micscape Magazine.

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