Moving a Personal Laboratory
by Richard L. Howey, Wyoming, USA
I am a cranky, muddled microscopist of 80 years. My wife and I have lived in a fairly large, 2 story house for nearly 47 years. Accounts differ as to when it was built and the dates vary from 1889 to 1900. In any case according to the county assessors office, the house is 118 years old. It has very steep and extremely narrow steps to the second story and to the basement. My wife and I can no longer deal with these treacherous steps. One friend who is a microscope technician and dealer and has dealt, on several occasions with those stairs, when delivering instruments which I had purchased, described them in the following manner: “When climbing upward, I expect to be passed in the other direction by a mountain goat descending.” The stairs to the basement are as bad or worse. So after an on-again, off-again, on-again search for about 3 years, we finally found a house on one level–no second story, no basement!–however, only about 1/3 the size of our present house.
Now imagine 2 eccentric people who are near compulsive collectors and minor geniuses at finding ways to accommodate always a few more of this and a few more of that. All of this complicated by the fact that neither of them could resist a bargain. For example, when one idiot Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences decided to close the Zoology stockroom and make individual faculty individually purchase instruments and supplies “in order to save money”, there was a gigantic sale (quite literally a bargain basement sale) and I, of course, was there frequently for the several weeks of the sale. I bought 3 stereo-zoom Bausch and Lomb microscopes for $75 dollars each, an analytic balance for $1 (!), yes, one dollar, a large, heavy-duty centrifuge for $25, small cartons of cover glasses, each containing 10 plastic boxes of 100 cover glasses, in other words, 1000 cover glasses for $3, boxes of 72 standard microscope slides–50 cents each, hemostats ranging from “mosquito” forceps to large heavy duty forceps ranging in price from 25 to 75 cents, student laboratory microscopes from $5 to $25 depending on condition, etc. Now, what kind of self-respecting, hedonistic microscopist could resist stocking up at such a once-in-a-lifetime sale? And this is not even to mention the packets of 100 disposable scalpels for $5, the bottles of, from one gram to 25 grams of powdered biological stains for 50 cents each, probes, dissecting needles, Petri dishes, bottles, bottles, and bottles, not to mention vials, all at a fraction of what they cost. Needless, to say, I stocked up and then some and now, in the process of moving, I am paying the price for my acquisitiveness.
Over the years, I have given a lot of items to students, amateur microscopists of many sorts, relatives and friends, but the amount that remains is still staggering. I used to wander out in the prairies and mountains collecting rocks and minerals, plants, beetles, butterflies, moths, animal bones, mosses, lichens, feathers, interesting wood samples, mushrooms, not to mention, all kinds of pond life, some samples of which got preserved.
I had access to sea life, in particular, tide pools, on only a few occasions over the years, and I ended up buying most of my marine specimens. Way back–50 years ago–there was a marine supply company which offered 5 gallons of preserved specimens form $35 to $75 depending on the assortment. As I remember 5 gallons of shrimp trawl trash was $35 and for several years, I bought such assortments. Their arrival was always an occasion of great excitement, because one never knew what one might find–it was completely unsorted. The contents would vary with the season and the particular shrimp boat that provided the material. Some hypersensitive ecologists didn’t like the practice apparently because, in their view, it had a negative impact on the eco-system. However, remember that this material was labeled as and regarded as “trash”. The usual practice was to simply throw it back into the ocean, dead or dying. True, it could provide food for other organisms, but that is not always desirable in that such “free” sources of food can lean to “blooms” of undesirable organisms and, in other instances, might diminish the predatory ability of certain organisms, thus creating an odd and not desirable dependency. In any case, the amount of such “trash” that was diverted to provide biologists, teachers, and amateurs with interesting species for examination and research was relatively small and in no way constituted a serious ecological threat. Plastic waste–now that’s a different matter altogether.
So, what was exciting in my assortments? Well, to begin with, I encountered many organisms that I had read about, but had never seen or had the opportunity to have hands-on chances to investigate in detail. Remember all of these specimens are relatively small, although some of them get very large in their adult stages: octopuses, sting rays, hammerhead sharks, skates, green and purple sea urchins, starfish, shrimp, mantid shrimp, sea cucumbers, and all sorts of microscopic goodies; algae, diatoms, nematode worms, and occasionally even a few well-preserved ciliates or flagellated protists. And I haven’t even mentioned the parasitic and symbiotic organisms which are abundant or creatures like the tunicate Styela plicata. I should also mention that there are lots of small fish of a variety of species which have both ecto- and endo-parasites. Occasionally one might find an oddity, such as, a batfish with its modified fins used for walking on a substrate. Over a period of some years, I acquired almost everything mentioned above but, of course, never in a single collection. Many years later, I still have a significant number of specimens that I am sorting through. Why did I acquire so much material, you might well ask and I have asked my self that very same question, especially now that we are in the process of moving. My answer has multiple parts–1) I strongly suspected that such wonderful collections would not be available indefinitely and so I regarded my acquisitions as an investment. 2) At the university, I found some students interested in microscopy and/or marine biology and a number of them helped me over the years with various projects in my lab and if they got interested in a particular group of organisms, I would provide them with specimens if I could. I have also met some science teachers who would love to have and need specimens, small tools, and instruments to support their efforts which, are in my view, crucial to the future. We need more and more young people who are knowledgeable about Nature. By sharing knowledge and resources with them we can, at least, make a small contribution to help to save our home–Planet Earth. 3) It is certainly the case that we need specialists who have highly technical and narrow foci for their research. However, it is equally important to have people with a wide range of interests, who can synthesize, interpret, and articulate larger perspectives about the marvel of this world and its extraordinary inhabitants in a clear and exhilarating fashion, yet with careful attention to fact. Having a wide range of specimen types can stimulate this process of multi-dimensional thinking.
The upshot of this is that now that we are moving, I need to divest myself of a large percentage of what remains. There are at least 3 public school teachers who will have specimens which will allow them to pose new problems and present new properties to their students. I am also donating a large number of specimens to the Department of Zoology at the university, some for their Invertebrate Museum and the majority for the teaching labs.
Moving has also been a reminder of my mortality. I have 12 research quality microscopes–all of them used, but nonetheless, superb instruments. Should I donate them to the university? Try to sell them posthumously? (A good trick–are you listening, Houdini?) Give them to a friend (or several friends)?
After 40 years of teaching, mixed with a bit of administrative servitude, I have developed a healthy multi-dimensional skepticism of academic institutions and indeed of all bureaucratic institutions. Neither am I particularly attracted to the idea of selling these instruments to an anonymous person who might use them unwisely or neglect them. These microscopes are much more to me than hunks of ingeniously crafted metal and glass; they are companions with whom I have spent incalculable hours of pleasure and they have enriched my life in ways I can’t even begin to enumerate. So, it’s no contest; they will go to friends who I know will also embark on voyages of discovery.
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.
Published in the January 2019 edition of Micscape Magazine.
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