Systematic Observation for Beginners
by Dale Jeffrey, Windsor, Ontario, Canada
In the process of reading a biography of Linnaeus, the Swedish naturalist who is often described as “the father of taxonomy”, one thing struck a chord with me: even though the man was a great observer of living things, he was a journal keeper whose drawings were almost infantile. However, despite his obvious lack of artistic talent, he nonetheless used his awkward sketches as means of noting the most salient features of each specimen – though none approached true art.
My own sketches, as a neophyte microscopist, are similar to those of Linnaeus. True, many of us now use photography as a means of recording our adventures through the eyepiece, but at least in my case, drawing the specimen still has enormous benefit. The eyepiece observation alone is fascinating to be sure, and when living specimens are wet mounted, I can spend two hours or more looking at one slide, changing magnifications, filters, lighting, etc. A rough journal entry is often made at this stage, and then perhaps a few still shots through my camera, or sometimes a video, but the real challenge comes when I put the journal (the one I reserve for final recording) beside the microscope and camera in playback mode, and I begin a pencil drawing of my target microbe. My artistic abilities are quite undeveloped, and perhaps will improve with time. However, the chief benefit of the drawing exercise is a challenge to record what I actually saw. Thus, the most salient features of the specimen are recorded as my eyes and mind have interpreted the microbe in question.
After this process has proceeded to my satisfaction, it is time to open the Internet, go to Micscape or some other excellent resource, and perhaps even review an online article or two, or a book I’ve borrowed from the library, and then record in prose what I think I have learned. The results sometimes point to my inadequacies as an observer, or as an artist, or often both. But with my sometimes copious notes, photos and sketches, I am often gratified with my conclusions. I have correctly identified the organism and its most important features, and then I can say with integrity that I have not merely seen the organism, but I have actually observed it. In all of this, success or failure, I am training to be better at my chosen hobby.
Identify and follow the specimen of interest to you. Examine it carefully under different magnifications. Note its relations with others of its own kind, as well as its efforts with both predators and prey. What does it appear to be eating? How do you think it reproduces, care for its young, etc.? Photograph it as an aid to identification and as a memento of your time, but draw it as best you can, even if you are no more talented in artistic rendering than Linnaeus or myself. Record the results of your observations and research in a journal you are proud to keep. Hard work? You bet! Worth the effort? Most definitely!
Amateur microscopy is a wonderful hobby for those with curiousity about the world around them. Through our marvelous instruments we are able to see an entire biosphere only dreamed about by our recent ancestors. Due to the precision of our modern technologies we can see and observe better than any who have gone before. Yet, it can as a serious hobby, open up entire new vistas, and through the incredible amount of intellectual resources available to us through the World Wide Web and the local library, we may even be blessed with the opportunity to see and study something hitherto unknown to science. What a world of wonder is made visible to us! Taking the time to truly and systematically observe this new landscape and its denizens can be a source of inestimable pleasure and pride, if we but take the time.
All comments to the author Dale Jeffrey are welcomed.
Microscopy UK Front
Published in the August 2015 edition of Micscape Magazine.
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