The Amateur Microscopist

Some Personal Thoughts

By Paul James (uk)

One of the virtues of being an amateur microscopist is that we can pursue the interest in a manner which entirely suits us . We can begin at the beginning as it were at any age, and let the interest grow naturally within the constraints of time and finance. I suspect many amateurs pursue their hobby individually and until fairly recently rarely if ever communicated to others of like minds. We do not have to be an Olympian, nor possess a high IQ, or have the delicacy of touch of an eye surgeon. What we do need however is some common sense and an enquiring mind and of course innate curiosity to fuel this. Many of us have a subconscious reverence and respect for the tiny objects and life forms we examine which raises our level of familiarity with our surroundings. It elevates our consciousness by extending the dimensional scale of our world by almost a quantum leap, in a similar way that an aspiring astronomer might experience, but in the opposite sense of course.

Today the cost of a half decent used microscope is almost embarrassingly small compared with those of much earlier times. Such a welcome state of affairs is born out of the mass production of instrumentation from the manufacturers whose markets were in the main professionally orientated. Periodical upgrading of laboratory microscopes from the institutions fuels the 'spillage' of instrumentation that the amateur indirectly benefits from. Internet trading now has evened the playing field considerably by encouraging PC users to sell their unwanted gear, when in the past much of this paraphernalia would have been left idle to be forgotten and consigned eventually to the town tip during a house moving episode?

This relatively painless introduction to microscopy can be followed by long periods in which little or no more money is spent. One slide can, in theory with a few coverslips to account for breakages, endure in the amateur's hands for many years, in a hobby where the vast proportion of specimens for scrutiny are entirely free. Sooner or later however, the amateur realises that the two most important factors in good microscopy are specimen slide mounting or 'preparation' and effective illumination, and they do not come without some skills and also effort. Pond water studies are perhaps the simplest and easiest to pursue and need not involve any extra expense. The chances of discovering new variations of species under the 'scope are high, but being aware that this has been achieved are even lower!!!

Learning curves apply just as much to this pursuit as any other, and despite a wealth of information these days on the subject, the individual still has to go through the motions of acquiring the knowledge and the skills necessary to become a competent microscopist. There are no shortcuts for those wishing to enjoy the ultimate rewards that microscopy can bring, and indeed like all pursuits the end justifies the means. Ultimately, the amateur's interest evolves through experience into various areas of endeavour, which might include slide making, photomicrography, polar work, etc etc..

Having acquired the necessary skills the amateur can journey through the realms of microscopic life ad infinitum. There is so much material that is suitable for the microscope that it compares to the astronomer's vast menu of stellar objects, but the microscopist does not have to contend with cloud and bad seeing, provided the specimen is suitably mounted!

The amateur's microscope, whether it is a humble instrument or a serious piece of instrumentation can be left safely almost at a moment's notice in its case or on the bench under a dust bag and can remain there for a long period without ill effect. Like everything else it is there at our beck and call ready to be used. We cannot forget how to manipulate the microscope after six months, but would find the same time lapse of disuse a serious problem in the playing of a musical instrument!

Microscopes also have to put up with the variations of interest from the amateur. It is not unusual for an amateur to experience periods of time in which there is a waning of interest in their hobby, for one or more of a number of reasons. It is a pursuit which can make a deep impact on the psyche of an individual or it can be no more than a tool which has filled in a part of the overall vista of the world as we see it. It can reveal for a few moments imagery which the observer can never forget, like the very first time when we all take our initial glimpse through the eyepiece and remember doing so.

If some microscopes could talk they would undoubtably mention the long periods of loneliness; being possessed by owners who do not understand them properly, and of course abuse, but hopefully most are carefully used and maintained. Some instruments are really old and have survived through large spans of social upheaval and sadly the lives of microscopists, amateur or otherwise. Some 'scopes must have had several owners and several tales to tell?

So the amateur microscopist can be either a dabbler or a long term diligent student of microscopy or of course somewhere in between. There is a broad range of potential input to the observer which would in all probability take a life time to make sense of; most of us are content to experience just a few avenues of 'research'. I have no problem accepting that some amateurs might be content just to take an occasional peep into the micro world and little else. Even such a modest engagement with say the low power stereo microscope should reward the dabbler immensely.

And what therefore can microscopy teach the humble amateur? Many things for sure but I think the bottom line from a long discourse on the subject will reveal a variety of answers from a variety of observers. Many would indicate in their own way that their long experience with the microscope was like going on holiday outings to an unseen world, where they saw forms of life not seen in the normal scale of events, and like a holiday they have to come back to our scale of reality, though we carry memories of what we have seen and also photo's too! One can only imagine what effect the revelations by the first microscopists might have had on the populace of the day?

Isn't it so ironic that the astronomer's telescope brings the distant images of a wealth of celestial objects a little nearer for scrutiny, yet the microscope's objective's front element is only a fraction of an inch away from the other world, but we are in both cases unable to involve our bodily selves into either world, but have to accept that the eyepiece as the defining boundary?

Whatever thoughts pass through an amateur microscopist's mind after years of observation must surely boil down to the simple fact that we can only be sightseers of the incredibly complex and visually delightful tiny world, and little else.................... I'm not complaining!


All comments welcome by the author Paul James

Microscopy UK Front Page
Micscape Magazine
Article Library

Microscopy UK or their contributors.

Published in the October 2005 edition of Micscape.

Please report any Web problems or offer general comments to the Micscape Editor.

Micscape is the on-line monthly magazine of the Microscopy UK web
site at Microscopy-UK Ltd, Microscopy-UK, and all contributors 1995 onwards. All rights reserved. Main site is at with full mirror at