Ahamed has an MBA and worked in document control for years. He enjoys writing and has freelanced and blogged across the internet.
History of the Microscope
No one's quite sure who invented the first true microscope. Lenses used for magnification (and fire-starting) date back as far as ancient Greece. There are numerous such lenses on display at the archeological museum in Herakleion.
Scholars George Sines and Yannis A. Sakellarakis write that “The use of lenses [in antiquity] was widespread throughout the Middle East and the Mediterranean basin over several millennia,” they conclude, “[and] the quality of some of these lenses was sufficient to permit their use as magnifying glasses.”
However, what we think of as the modern laboratory microscope has clearer origins and was invented sometime between 1590 and 1600 by Zacharias and Hans Jansen, Dutch spectacle-makers. Their invention is the foundation of the modern laboratory microscope because it was a compound microscope, meaning it consists of at least two lenses.
About 60 years later, another Dutchman named Antonie van Leeuwenhoek began to create his own compound microscope using his own ground lenses. While his microscopes were simple, they could magnify up to 200 times and allowed him to observe single-celled organisms. He presented his microscopic findings to the Royal Society in London, where Robert Hooke was making similar discoveries with his own microscope.
Still, the microscope was not used widely by scientists for another 150 years! This was due to their propensity for image blurring and color separation. However, around 1830, Joseph Jackson Lister and William Tulley made the first microscopes that corrected these major issues. This made microscopes highly palatable to scientists, and their use rapidly spread.
Thanks to the microscope, we are aware of the super-miniature world of tiny organisms and microorganisms. It has also played a pivotal role in many important advances in science and medicine. In this article, we'll be taking a look at some of the most interesting things to view through a microscope!
10 Magnificent Things Seen Through a Microscope
- Shark Skin
- Orange Juice
- Tapeworm Head
- Vinyl Record
- Kosher Salt
- Peacock Feather
- Cacoxenite and Nsutite
Chalk is one of the most widely utilized natural materials on the planet. It's probably best known for its use on chalkboards and sidewalks, but it's also used in the manufacture of building materials, fertilizers, antacids, and cleaning goods.
While it appears to be a basic chemical (CaCO3), it is significantly more complicated than most people know. It's vital to understand how chalk originated in the first place to understand why this is. All of the world's resources date from the Cretaceous period, which lasted between 99 and 65 million years and was when dinosaurs roamed the earth.
Layer upon layer of microscopic organisms, whose cells were made of calcite, built up on top of each other as they died during a relatively calm, atmospheric period when there wasn't much ocean bed erosion in certain places. Over millions of years, layer upon layer of microscopic organisms whose cells were made of calcite built up on top of each other as they died.
The outcome is a solid material that can easily be crumbled or whose layers may be removed as it is forced against a harder substance. It's presently the only type of limestone that shows indications of compaction.
When examined under a microscope, this long history may still be seen in chalk, and it is only then that the material exposes itself as a marine graveyard with the individual remnants of these organisms clearly apparent.
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2. Shark Skin
The ocean's top predators instill dread in the thoughts of any other organisms they come across. Of course, their rows upon rows of sharp teeth are one of the most important characteristics that make them such effective hunters, but their skin is also crucial to their powers.
If you've ever run your hand over a shark's skin, you'll notice that it has a sandpapery texture that distinguishes it from the skin of any other animal. It's only when you examine it under a microscope that you'll realize why: their skin, rather than being made up of cells like ours, is actually a dermal corset that's arranged as a helical network around their body.
In layman's terms, this means that their bodies are encircled by a coating of microscopic teeth arranged in a certain pattern, which serves two purposes. The first is that it works as an external skeleton for their swimming muscles, allowing them to conserve energy; the second is that it provides a hydrodynamic advantage, allowing them to swim faster through the water with less effort than would otherwise be required.
Furthermore, as the shark moves through the water, each tooth-like structure in its skin creates a little swirl, which has been discovered to create a suction effect that provides the shark more propulsion, allowing it to go forward even faster.
Sharks will swiftly replace any damaged areas of their skin, and certain species will grow these dermal denticles in a different hue to provide them the capacity to disguise in particular aquatic settings, just like their teeth.
3. Orange Juice
Orange juice is a common liquid seen in refrigerators worldwide; probably the most surprising fact is that it was only popularised in the latter decades of the twentieth century when it was discovered to be a palatable manner of taking nutrients during WWII.
It's now an important industry in places like Florida, where tens of millions of gallons are generated yearly—but this is considerably more difficult than it appears. Because orange juice contains various chemicals, including Vitamin C, sugar, and carbs, as well as potassium thiamine, folate, and citric acid, it appears extremely different under a microscope.
When you magnify the juice a hundred times, you can see a complicated crystalline structure that appears more like something you'd find in a mining operation than a breakfast beverage. The different compounds take on dramatically diverse colors when viewed with polarised light. This is true for both the smooth and pulpy variants of the beverage.
So the next time you take a drink, keep in mind that what you're swallowing is far more sophisticated than it appears.
4. Tapeworm Head
Tapeworms are parasitic worms that look like ribbons and have bodies made up of a series of egg bundles called proglottids that are constantly released into the environment to infect other organisms.
There are many ways for them to enter a new host depending on the species, but once they reach adulthood, they grab on to an animal's digestive tract and feed on the nutrients that pass by, which they then utilize to make more eggs. Several kinds of tapeworm may infect humans, usually through undercooked pork, beef, or seafood, and while the prospect of getting infected with one is revolting enough, seeing what they look like up close is much more terrifying.
The worms have three basic parts: a scolex (head), a short neck, and a body made up of egg sacs. Under a microscope, it's the scolex that stands out the most, and that's because of what it's supposed to do. Because they can take nutrients directly via their bodies, they don't need mouths.
Instead, they use their heads to keep themselves in place. They have rows of hooks or suckers, and after they've found the appropriate spot, they'll utilize them to latch onto their host's intestine, an attachment that is quite tough to dislodge once established.
5. Vinyl Record
While music technology has advanced significantly in recent decades, and we now primarily stream songs in high fidelity, it wasn't long ago that we had to rely on cassette tapes and vinyl records made from a resin called shellac, which, starting in the 1940s, would become the main way in which music was recorded and distributed during the twentieth century.
Instead of being digital like the most prevalent techniques today, vinyl records are analog, meaning that the sound waves are effectively imprinted on them due to the comparatively soft material they're constructed of. Then it's just a matter of loading them into a dedicated player, where a needle follows the groove in the record and converts its movement into music.
When you hold a record in your hands, you can see the grooves and the starting point, which will help you position the player's needle correctly. When examined under an electron microscope, though, the complexity of their shape becomes even more apparent.
It's incredible to think that something so basic, in comparison to today's technology, could perform so well. Many believe that these imprints can provide considerably higher sound quality than the most advanced digital technologies available.
Phonograph Needle: Slow-motion Microscopy
6. Kosher Salt
Salt comes in various forms depending on how it's made, and while it may appear to be a boring substance at first glance, things get a lot more intriguing under a microscope.
Kosher salt, also known as cooking salt or rock salt, is unique because it is coarser than table salt and contains much fewer additives. It's primarily sodium chloride, and it's noted for having a cleaner flavor in its purest form. Because of the crystal sizes, it may be used for bringing meat or even cleaning cookware. It can be used for brining meat or even cleaning kitchenware because of the crystal sizes.
This form of salt looks wonderful under a microscope when numerous varied shapes become evident because it isn't ground down as much. What you see depends on the procedure used to generate it; instead of cubic crystals, it'll usually be flat and plate-like or, in some cases, hollow pyramids created by evaporating salty water.
We rarely give salt a second thought because it's such a common substance, but the fact that it appears so amazing under magnification illustrates how unpredictable the tiny world can be.
They're a group of flowering plant species primarily found in Europe and North America, commonly observed as yellow blossoms that turn into seed heads in meadows and fields. You might not realize that instead of being just one flower, they're technically categorized as a cluster of miniature blossoms that form a composite flower head called a floret.
That's why, when simply glancing at them, you'll notice they produce so many seeds, ready to be swept away by the wind or brushed against the fur of a passing animal. They have a few features that have formed to help them spread under normal settings, but everything becomes obvious when examined under a microscope. Because the seeds are towards the bottom, there is a tuft of white fiber wrapped around a stalk developing above them, which eventually becomes part of the white ball that grows.
A yellow floret sits above this, and the stigma, which has many pollen-covered lobes, sits at the flower's crown. Dandelions are particularly popular with insects because of these structures, which are enticed in by the nectar and get pollen grain caught on them, which they then transmit to the next flower they feed on.
When the dandelion turns into a seed ball, though, it's even more remarkable since each seed is wrapped in a succession of tiny spikes. Not only do these allow them to adhere to passing animals, they also help the seed anchor itself to the earth once it has been dropped, allowing it to germinate.
8. Peacock Feather
There are three peacock species, two native to Asia and one originating in Africa. They have a reputation for being among the most elegant and magnificent of all birds. This is due to the males' elaborate feather trains, which exhibit an array of iridescent hues to catch possible mates' attention.
They're beautiful enough to behold at regular size, but a microscope exposes far more complex than you can see from a distance. Nanostructures create amazing colors within the feathers that are each a different color and fluctuate in intensity based on the angle from which you look at them.
When magnified 500 times, you can see every little line and curve of the feathers, the different bundles of barbules, and the specific coloration of each segment in greens, blues, golds, and other hues. Because of the way the iridescent colors are so strongly reflected, photographing these in such detail is rather difficult.
It's incredible to observe in such detail how the mesmerizing colors of a peacock aren't the product of pigments as you might imagine, but rather interactions with light that reflect in different ways depending on how you look at it, making an already magnificent creature much more so.
9. Cacoxenite and Nsutite
Most natural compounds retrieved from the ground appear no more interesting than any other stone or rock. Yet, depending on their chemical makeup, they could be hiding something exquisite under the microscope. Because they're not highly sought after, you're unlikely to hear of them.
Cacoxenite, for example, is a golden-colored mineral composed of iron phosphate and aluminum that is commonly found in areas where iron ore is mined. Its Latin name means "unwelcome guest," implying that its presence will lower the quality of iron smelted from the ore. Therefore, it's normally seen as bad news anytime it appears.
Nsutite is a manganese- and oxygen-based mineral that is dull and uninspiring. It's frequently discovered in larger manganese resources all around the world. It was once utilized in the manufacture of cathodes for zinc-carbon batteries, but this is being phased out in favor of synthetic replacements.
These two minerals complement each other in such a manner that the image in Burgess's Atlas Obscura article (see Sources section) nearly appears organic, demonstrating that beauty can be discovered in practically everything if you search hard enough.
Finally, dust mites are one of the most common causes of allergies in the house, and the more you learn about them, the more you'll want to get rid of them permanently.
Rather than referring to a specific species, the name refers to a variety of microscopic arachnids that are closely related to other spiders but grow no larger than three-hundredths of an inch long, significantly smaller than what the human eye can perceive.
Under a microscope, however, it's easy to see how spider-like they are, even if their bodies aren't as segmented as those of larger species. The front of their bodies does not have a head, eyes, or a brain; instead, it has a retractable feeding mechanism that will either suck in particles or bite into animals.
More than 48,000 different species of mites have been identified, with an estimated population of over a million. They can be found practically anywhere, including soil plants and caves, as well as fresh water and our dwellings.
For instance, dust mites. Huge colonies can build in mattresses if they thrive in warm temperatures and feed on the flakes of skin that we naturally shed, and their presence might provoke asthma or other allergies if you have a natural reaction to the proteins they generate.
Sources and Further Reading
"Biomimicry Shark Denticles." (n.d.). Smithsonian Institution, https://ocean.si.edu/ocean-life/sharks-rays/biomimicry-shark-denticles.
Burgess, Anika. (2017). "The World’s Tiniest Wonders, Revealed Through Photomicrography." Atlas Obscura, https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/photomicrography-microscope-contest-cells.
"Chalk." (n.d.). Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources, Jordan, https://www.memr.gov.jo/EBV4.0/Root_Storage/EN/Project/Chalk.pdf.
"The History of Vinyl Records: An In-Depth Guide." (2022). The Sound of Vinyl, https://thesoundofvinyl.us/blogs/vinyl-101/the-history-of-vinyl-records.
"I found a moving Face Mite (Demodex) and put it under the microscope." (n.d.). Microbehunter Microscopy, https://www.microbehunter.com/i-found-a-moving-face-mite-demodex-and-put-it-under-the-microscope/.
"The Microscope." (2019). Science Museum, https://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/objects-and-stories/medicine/microscope.
"Microscopes." (n.d.). National Geographic Resource Library, https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/microscopes.
"Microscopy of the dandelion flower." (n.d.). Microbehunter Microscopy, https://www.microbehunter.com/microscopy-of-the-dandelion-flower/.
O'Hare, Sean. (2012). "Ancient Optical Lenses." Ancient Cinema, https://www.ancient-cinema.org/index.php/stories/77-ancient-optical-lenses.
Pritchard, Emma-Louise. (2016). "This is what peacock feathers look like under a microscope." Country Living, https://www.countryliving.com/uk/wildlife/farming/news/a554/this-is-what-peacock-feathers-look-like-under-a-microscope/.
Shannon, Kate. (2019). "Our Favorite Kosher Salt." Cook's Illustrated, https://www.cooksillustrated.com/articles/1946-our-favorite-kosher-salt.
Shephard, Roy. (n.d.). "What is chalk?" Discovering Fossils, http://www.discoveringfossils.co.uk/chalk_formation_fossils.htm.
"Tapeworms." (n.d.). ScienceDirect, https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/agricultural-and-biological-sciences/tapeworms.
Waldvogel, Michael, Bertone, Matt, and Charles Apperson. (n.d.). "Mites That 'Bug' People." North Carolina State U Extension, https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/mites-that-bug-people.