|Micro "pops" versus
So are there more amateur Microscopists than amateurAstronomers ?
By Paul James, UK
The subject matter of last month's article by G. Joseph Wilhelm was coincidentally very much at the fore in my own mindset over the past few months. I have been vacillating between these two disciplines throughout my life, though I'd not considered at all which has had the greatest following at the national level over the years : Microscopy or Astronomy. I guess it makes some sense that those individuals who take an interest in peeping through an eyepiece, will at some time find themselves familiarising imaging perspectives gleaned through microscopes, telescopes, low power stereoscopes and of course binoculars. The latter is seen more frequently than any of the other optical devices simply because it can't be used indoors, and the telescope's owner is mostly a nocturnal creature. Microscopes not only live indoors, but can be hidden inside cases or shrouds of one sort or another. So from the general public's perspective the two amateur disciplines simply don't exist. Even the professional observatories are usually out of range of the public consciousness. However, in the confines of seclusion, the amateur eyepiece peepers have been beavering silently away at work with optical instruments for well over a century or more. What therefore draws their attention to these hobbies ?
I would have thought that at the very heart of these practices must surely be our irrepressible curiosity, which may seem a relatively innocuous instinct today but was, and still is for that matter essential for survival. Of the 5 facilities, sight is one which is assigned a large proportion of the brain's computing power optimising its efficiency so that we not only see our surroundings, but are able to discriminate in great detail the components of the 'picture' : Greatly enhanced by the spacial clarity afforded from stereoscopic vision. I'd imagine therefore that since the human mind has been honed in the art of reconnaissance in its widest sense for an immense span of time, we should inherit the very same system even in our relatively peaceful present day surroundings, even where the victuals and shelter are more commonplace than they were in the dim and very distant past.
Yet curiosity is perhaps an understatement in relation to sight even in present day circumstances where hazards still lurk, as we still have to keep our wits updated millisecond by millisecond through those moments of imminent danger, even with the vital enhancement of sound that provides that extra security of all embracing awareness. Taste and smell play second fiddle in these circumstances though the latter can raise alarm bells instantly in cases of potential fire and other threatening air born tell tales.
So when the eye addresses the aerial image projecting from an eyepiece, it is taking part in an entirely unnatural process of assessing a scene, because the image we subjectively analyse through the eyepiece is bereft of the stimulants that arouse the other 4 senses. The universal eyepiece reduces our sensation of the 'quarry' to just the visual level, with the other facilities on hold : It's as simple as that. We are, when peeping through the microscope and telescope relying solely on visual input and nothing else. There are no sounds from Mars, nor smells of cheese from the moon and no likelihood of being able to touch either whilst wrestling with the telescope. We can touch the quarry on the microscope's stage but we have not evolved with micro sensitive fingertips, so that's effectively off limits too. So the scene as witnessed through the eyepiece is akin to watching an old silent movie, but without the dialogue prompts onscreen, and of course without the sowing machine like clatter of the projector ! It is an entirely unique experience which I believe requires complete concentration of the observer's visual wits, and does therefore I suspect automatically isolate the individual.........in fact subordinates the consciousness very effectively onto the perceived quarry. I cannot recall memories of any external distractions which have arrested my attention during any observing session other than the shivering and discomfort eventually felt whilst trying to concentrate on some enticing spectacle in the night sky during a winter's evening in the UK. For me total concentration comes naturally in the comfortable environs around the microscope's eyepiece, though I admit in youth, inside a much tougher carcass, I rarely ever trembled beneath the clearer winter skies of those times beside the telecope.
It seems clearly obvious then that the practice of eyepiece peeping is a highly personal experience befitting the individual hobby base of microscopy and astronomy. Their respective society gatherings have existed for a very long time. I've never belonged to such an institution or club as such, nor in fact have I attended a 'Star Party', though I do wonder whether they are more liberating and instructive than the classic club gathering where pecking order and the mechanics of committee convention can I suspect significantly preside over the hobby. I guess that varies from one location or continent to another.
Microscopy tends I think to amble along simply because the conditions required for satisfactory observation are entirely controllable, predictable, and not too demanding of the pocket with a constancy of observational satisfaction throughout the year. Amateur astronomers however, have to endure what is thrown at them by the elements regardless. They have to be by nature, natural opportunists, ready to make full use of favourable weather conditions at a moments notice. Importantly too is the ability to be philosophically resigned to the 'rained off' scenario that is so very commonly encountered here in the UK. Added to this universal hurdle the astronomer is slowly becoming ever more hindered by light pollution as well having to tolerate somewhat less transparent skies than the earlier pioneers innocently enjoyed. The chips are therefore stacked heavily against the sky peeper, yet it seems that astronomy is as popular as ever. What would account for this in an era which is witnessing a very slow but noticeable diminishment of air transparency and escalating light pollution ? Maybe the internet's profusion of imagery and information, and readily accessed intercommunicational facilities maintains interest and keeps the protagonists on the boil. Another reason which may be bolstering the amateur's interest has recently been the ability to raise very high standards of celestial imagery which can easily be mistaken for professional examples. The fact that the amateur has been bridging the gap in digital photography must have a strong influential effect on the mainstream group of amateurs who need some achievable goal to aspire to.
There is however another component to this comparative subject. The laws of the physics of light simply dictate that the microsope's compass is limited by the stricture of numerical aperture. For the vast majority of amateur microscopists therefore the ability to resolve ever finer structural detail is also limited. So though a modest financial outlay in microscopy can reward the individual for a number of years, it can only be enhanced slightly in quality terms with further expenditure.....the law of diminishing returns ? There are no such restrictions for the amateur astronomer who can invest fortunes in large telescopes knowing that aperture is everything............subject to the behaviour of the atmosphere. The large instruments in the professional observatories are testaments to this premise, but most amateurs in more urban locations ply their 'scopes with great disadvantage beneath a thermally unstable atmosphere.
Of the two disciplines, astronomy, by default must surely be more naturally accessible to the individual since a cursory glance at the night sky reveals a host of wonders to those curious enough to want to investigate further. The process of acquiring a small telescope for starters isn't rocket science, and so those who have a natural aptitude for understanding their surroundings will take the bait and start peeping. The introduction to the micro world, animate or not as the case may be, isn't as intuitively self realised for rather obvious reasons. The potential microscopist therefore invariably needs a prompt : An inviting eyepiece to peep into with a little explanation about what is going on. It's not that the budding microscopist is feeble minded or a little slow on the uptake, for their naturally perceived world simply ends at the level of the harvest mite or air born gnat. My own introduction to both hobbies was the result of one man's quiet enthusiasm. He was aged, tall and lean, with smiling eyes behind wire rimmed spectacles through which he effused a delight of both disciplines that made a lasting lifelong impact on me at the tender age of 7. I remember being more highly motivated by the heavens at that time, because I didn't have the imaginative wit to comprehend microscopic scales : That arrived, albeit in minute doses, about 5 years later to partner the astronomer in me. Yet though I'd progressed from a toy microscope to a half decent stand by the age of 16 and was aware as any juvenile could be that its imaging was distinctly superior to the pinhole optics version, I've never owned a truly decent telescope from that time to date. I mention this because it does reveal a near subconscious perspective I've held for many years regarding the practice of astronomical observation. I don't think I'm altogether alone on this because there is an undeniable logic to my reticence regarding the expenditure of 4 figure finance on a seriously equivalent optic to the microscope stands I've owned during that time. It has nothing to do with my relative interest between astronomy and microscopy for they are for all intents and purposes equal. It is to do with seeing, astronomical seeing that is : The wretched atmosphere's tendency to 'boil' which partially nullifies a good telescope's imaging capability, is very frustrating indeed. So much so that it has dampened my enthusiasm for practical observational astronomy over the years, as well as reducing my enthusiasm for buying a decent SCT.
The perfect seeing conditions potential in microscopy, where all the parameters conducive to excellent imaging is user controllable and therefore is an intrinsic gift that is probably taken for granted by many in the micro' fraternity. To be able to control every aspect of observational microscopy compared to the astronomer's plight is perhaps a virtue not so prominent in the consciousness of all micro peepers as it might be. Conversely I'm sure some sky peepers are acutely aware of this discrepancy between the disciplines and wish therefore that they could pop to the moon for a while and observe the heavens under truly transparently inert 'skies' !
From a historical perspective the human race has been around for quite a while, yet its awareness of the large scales remained naturally on landscape vistas and the night sky, and most especially the sun. If there was a sense of the microscopic during those times, it must have been confined to those individuals who had a flexible imagination, for it wasn't until a few hundred years ago that the lens changed everything. And it did. The rush to delve into both extremes of perspective through the eyepiece gathered hoards of interested individuals....the rest is history.
In theory at least astronomy must have the edge regarding intrinsic popularity amidst the general population. For a start the science is old compared with microscopy which has celebrated its 400 odd years of existence: A trifle by comparison. The history behind the naming of the constellations is ancient, let alone the perspectives of those individuals who in much earlier epochs, must have gazed at the night sky whilst seated beside the camp fire's dying embers as they gazed at the spectacular canopy overhead . The near silence of the night, together with the absolute silence of the sky must surely have ignited imaginative thought. Perhaps this was where the imagination was born ?
The religious connotations, if not in reality, have in mind created a seamless attachment to the heavens, thereby strengthening the involvement of our subconsciousness.......Heaven and Earth. So without the power selling distractions of the modern world, I genuinely suspect that the discipline with the highest population of amateur activists is Astronomy. I say activists because there are I imagine a fair number of armchair astronomers out there, who practice beside the hearty fireside, especially in winter. But then who hasn't at some time ?
Finally, I cannot end this article without raising an issue which I find somewhat perplexing. Whilst the amateur microscopist/astronomer is modestly beavering away at his hobby, the professional astronomer seems to be engrossed ( at vast public expense) in the search for extra terrestrial life, as well as trying to determine the date of the universe's creation. I find this line of research rather pointless, especially in times of an awareness of our carbon dioxide generating activities and rather limited financial resources. It does however reveal something about human nature. Grand ideas, seem to attract the politically astute into supporting grand schemes with grand expenditures. In one respect, the amateur microscopist is much nearer the heart of the matter.... the cell, yet pursues it all on a comparative shoe string. Life's already here........we actually know it. Let's concentrate on the art of preserving it.....for all we know the earth maybe the only place where life exists.
|All comments welcome by the author Paul James|
Microscopy UK Front Page
Published in the April 2012 edition of Micscape.
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