The Microscope, Homo Sapiens and Sensibility

A rather convoluted personal perspective of how we

relate to the microscope and science

By Paul James (UK)

It is not just that the microscope can reveal to us the nature of the 'invisible' world that makes for its popularity with the amateur, for it has also an undeniable attraction that subconsciously stirs within our psyche. Of course it is in the first instance a tool, an object of purpose, designed to amplify the tiny world of life we put before it, yet its design reveals the unmistakable signs of the artistry behind the integration of utility with form: an imitation perhaps of nature's own refinements within the very life forms the microscope seeks to reveal to us?

Its actual shape has varied somewhat between different manufacturers and through differing eras, but its fundamental size, which is broadly similar in all modern instruments, is moderated by the wavelength of light, the properties of glass and the eye, and the requirements of convenience. That might seem a strange notion at first for beginners in microscopy, but is born out of the requirements of the highest resolution obtainable from visible light which has a limiting wavelength. That said, you could make a microscope which is six feet high, but it would require a ladder to use and cost a fortune!

So nature, has in one sense determined that our microscopes are of a rather convenient size, and the many designers of the instrument have in one way or another, and for various reasons, added their blend of artistry too. The result is an optical mechanical device which exudes in its graceful form, the self same air of reverence that the maker and observer have for the life forms it was designed to reveal. Subconsciously perhaps the microscope is one such instrument, that designers and manufacturers have fashioned to mimic the 'perfection' found in nature, and is quite likely the reason why most amateurs feel a sense of pride in their instrument, though this psychological process of 'association' is rife throughout society, and manifests itself in many ways.

The microscope shares one important feature with many other treasured devices that populate our world, and that is self containment, and by that I mean that it stands alone: A unit in fact. This is perhaps a significantly important aspect of its popularity as a pleasing visual object to admirers of its form, though some may disagree with this. A moments thought reveals that most if not all pleasurable objets d'art are isolated, self contained, and usually though not always of small to moderate size. A camera has these attributes, though it must be said that for the hand held forms such as the SLR and digicam, there is somewhat more intimate contact with the hands than with the microscope. A photographer who is very happy with his camera would admit that it not only records quality images, but that it feels good in his usage. Similarly a microscopist will issue the same basic praise of his favourite instrument, even though it is not actually held in the hands as such, but nevertheless its manipulation is part of the attraction of the instrument. The success in business terms of the popular lightweight camera, has more to do with its convenient size, looks and feel I believe than its imaging capability. The humble wheelbarrow is also self contained, but has never evolved to become an elegant object, nor viewed with such high esteem, quite possibly because its purpose, though useful, is rather mundane! The mobile phone on the other hand is fast becoming the icon of tactility and self containment, but I am digressing.

To really understand how we relate to objects like the microscope and the plethora of other artefacts, it is necessary to look into our evolutionary history, for every single aspect of our behavioural responses to the outside world is rooted firmly in the conditions of survival in our evolution. Our ingenuity stems from the necessity to survive in changing conditions, and the successful individuals, those that survived the harsh conditions over eons of time have passed on their genes to us. This inventive ingenuity, can be clearly seen in a microscope, as in any other sophisticated man made tool, and so the pleasure we derive from just surveying it with the eyes reflects the reverence we have for Homo sapiens' ingenuity and artistry too, for it is a self contained unit of human endeavour, which pleases the eye, and satisfies the intellect by its pure functionality. A flower is a perfect example of nature's sublime architectural artistry: An ensemble of multitudes of cells of varying functions combined into a self contained unit of sorts, which also pleases our senses. But though the difference between these two is vast in reality, they are perfect examples of creation by nature, the master, and Homo sapiens, the apprentice.

There is a gentle irony here, for though the microscope's purpose of utility is to take us closer to the 'invisible world' its revelations confirm the simple truth that nature's cellular architecture, and tiny life forms in general possess superior design and more economic use of materials, than we have been capable of implementing in an instrument such as the microscope. Yet another irony concerns the competitive pressures between manufacturers of the instrument, who have by honing down their material costs in order to survive, mimicked nature's economical use of resources, though for different reasons.

When we look through our microscopes, we are in a sense, peering back in time at objects still unchanged for millions of years, as does the astronomer who looks back in time through his telescope: a time scale which is incomprehensible to us. Here we have the greatest irony of all, for we are getting closer in one sense to nature, yet we have not got closer to the fundamental truth behind the life force, and consciousness. To understand this would require a quantum leap of imagination; a capacity of understanding that evolution has not bequeathed to us.

It is this that highlights the limitations of Homo sapiens and his array of instrumentation, and even the microscope for instance only lets us view the 'invisible' world, but does not provide any answers to our questions. Is it time that the questions themselves should perhaps be 'put under the microscope'? ..............Is it rational to spend billions of dollars to find out how old the universe is, or to discover the fundamental particle(s) of matter?? Neither can be substantiated, and at best are only concepts. Some of the science institutions have, in my opinion, exceeded their brief, by assuming they have the exclusive rights to turn over every stone in their path, regardless of sensibility, financial burdens, public safety and moral issues. Our monumental collection of radioactive waste serves perfectly to illustrate the limitations of Homo sapiens's capacity to be rational and responsible. The incongruency of his fascination for the ascertainment of the universe's age with his obvious incapacity of truly understanding the life span of this waste radioactive material, which is a tiny fraction of the age of the earth, let alone the universe, is a very sobering indictment of his limitations, and his audacious aspirations. The law of consequences has been well and truly implemented, and the most serious of these are irreversible.

It seems that Homo sapiens is deeply flawed. His curiosity, undiminished after millions of years of evolution, which appears to outreach his sensibilities, is prejudicing his capacity to be wholly rational. I suspect therefore that we are not qualified to pursue investigations into the primordial foundations of nature, nor indeed into the contentious area of genetics, where I believe there is much potential for more irreversibly harmful experimentation.

Meanwhile, the amateur microscopist / scientist and dabbler, with his modest brief carries on. Undaunted by lack of funds and modest equipment the amateur is quite content to just be an observer, whose pleasure derives fundamentally from the reverence he has for nature, and also gives some thoughts to the designers and engineers who have created from the earth's resources, a rather elegant and fascinatingly useful tool. The Microscope, by way of its revelations, has probably had more impact on our lives than any other device created. It has saved indirectly through the process of medical research, millions of lives. By expanding the images of tiny life forms, it has also expanded the imaginations of every one who has come into contact with it, and serves to reinforce the reverence we should have for the natural world. .............In modern parlance our microscope 'delivers the goods' and 'looks the part'!!

All comments to the author Paul James are welcomed


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Published in July 2003 Micscape Magazine.

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