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Affordable Microscopes for Everyday Use

November 21, 2013

Tears under a Microscope

Basal tear, photo Rose-Lynn Fisher, courtesy of the artist and Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica CA

Occasionally…. very occasionally amid the deafening ‘noise’ of irrelevant blogs, tweets and posts, I stumble across a real gem, a testament to the power of human curiosity and creativity. Rose-Lynn Fisher’s microscopic study, The Topography of Tears is one such gem.

Inspired by her own “period of personal change, loss and copious tears”, Fisher was curious about whether tears of grief looked different from tears of joy and laughter. Not content with just being curious, she photographed 100 tears using a standard compound microscope. Many were her own tears. Some were from friends and at least one from a baby. Her conclusions were not just scientifically interesting, but poetic; her writing is as good as her photographs and it is worth reading her description of the project.

Laughing tear, photo Rose-Lynn Fisher, courtesy of the artist and Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica CA

Science divides tears into three categories:

  • Physic tears such as grief and joy, which are triggered by extreme emotions
  • Basal tears which the eye releases continuously in tiny quantities as a corneal lubricant
  • Reflex tears in response to irritants such as onion vapors and dust.

As most people know, tears are in essence salt water, but they also contain a variety of oils, enzymes and antibodies. Physic tears, for example, contain hormones such as prolactin (associated with milk production) and the neurotransmitter leucine enkephalin which acts as a natural painkiller when the body is under stress.

These different molecules account for some of the differences that Fisher photographed. In addition, the circumstances and setting of how the tear evaporates determines the shape and formation of the salt crystals so that two identical tears can look entirely different close up.

So much for the science!

For Fisher, tears are more poetic and “evoke a sense of place, like aerial views of emotional terrain……..a momentary landscape, transient as the fingerprint of someone in a dream. This series is alike an ephemeral atlas”. Like Fibonacci numbers, Fisher sees a repetitive pattern in tears similar to the earth’s topography. ” I marvel….how the patterning of nature seems so consistent, regardless of scale. Patterns of erosion etched in to the earth over millions of years may look quite similar to the branched crystalline tears of an evaporated tear”.

Onion tear, photo Rose-Lynn Fisher, courtesy of the artist and Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica CA

“It’s as though each one of our tears carries a microcosm of the collective human experience, like one drop of an ocean. “

Tears of grief, photo Rose-Lynn Fisher, courtesy of the artist and Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica CA

What I particularly admire is that Fisher translated what started as idle curiosity into substantive action with  a result that is as beautiful as it is interesting. The idea is ingenious, but the execution is relatively simple, easily within the realm of the average family.

I would encourage you to try this experiment at home and send us your resulting images. After all, the Holidays is a time of extreme emotions all round, when tears of joy and grief abound.

November 07, 2013

Mount Toba – Super Volcano

The Jakarta Times reported, yesterday that geologists fear that Mount Toba, on Sumatra may erupt again as a super volcano. Toba has already accounted for the largest known earthquake in the last 2 million years when it spewed out more than 2,500 cubic kilometers…that’s kilometers, not meters….of magma and which ultimately resulted in the formation of  the world’s largest quaternary caldera’s (35 x 100 km) that is now Lake Toba.

The scientists, who include Craig A. Chesner of Eastern Illinois University have identified a huge magma chamber at a depth between 20-100 kilometers. The concern is that one of the frequent earthquakes in the region could set off an eruption, which would have potentially devestating consequences.

Anau Krakatau 2009 - Photo: Iris Karinkanta

Indonesia consists of more than 13,000 islands, spread over an area the size of the United States. It has the greatest number and density of active volcanoes with 129 being actively monitored by scientists. Most volcanoes in Indonesia stretch from NW Sumatra (including Mount Toba), to the Banda Sea and are largely the result of the subduction of the Indian Ocean crust beneath the Asian tectonic plate.  As if this were not enough, there are other subductions that make the picture more complex and….more dangerous.

Unsurprisingly, it also has the largest number of historically active volcanoes (76), and the second largest number of dated eruptions (1,171)  exceeded marginally by Japan (1,274).  Indonesian eruptions have also caused the highest number of fatalities, damage to arable land, mudflows, tsunamis, domes, and pyroclastic flows. 80% of such dated eruptions have erupted since 1900 although such analysis only stretches back to the 15th century!

Volcanic Rocks, Courtesy of

Two of the most cataclysmic volcanic eruptions in recent history include the devestating eruption of Tambora in 1815 which altered the world’s weather to such an extent that, in Europe, 1816 became known as ‘the year without summer’. More famous was the  disastrous eruption of Krakatau in 1883, not so much due to the magnitude of the eruption as to the magnitude of the tsunamis. Tsunamis accounted for 30-40,000 lives and secured Krakatau’s place in the collective memory of the world.

All of these volcanic eruptions create igneous rocks of one kind or another. Under a microscope, they can help tell the story of what happened and when while also presenting a glorious array of colors and crystals. Polarizing microscopes are best used for examining such rock specimens but surface textures an colors can be viewed with our new Explorer Series Rock Hound packages.

Explorer Pro Rock Hound Microscope Package

August 28, 2013



Microscopic view of cicada killer head

Eastern Cicada Killer Wasp

Danny brought in this beauty, last week and we took the opportunity to snap a few images under various microscopes.  It looks intimidating, but is harmless in spite of the females having a large stinger. It is an Eastern Cicada Killer wasp, which exists to cull some of the annual cicada population. The female uses her stinger to paralyze a cicada prior to flying it back to her nest which is an amazing sight since the cicada is typically significantly larger than the wasp itself. As a result, she hauls it up a tree and then launches herself off towards her burrow, often repeating this laborious process several times in order to get there. Each male egg gets one cicada and each female at least two cicadas. Unsurprisingly, the female wasps are larger than the males.

Cicada Killer Burrow

You can always identify cicada killer wasps not only due to their size (up to two inches), but due to their burrows which always have a mound of earth outside along with a characteristic trench running through it to the hole. And there will be lots of them, too…….thousands at our last house!

Leg Spines

As you can see, up close under a microscope, they are beautiful. The spines on their legs serve to help the females dig their burrows. They use their powerful jaws to loosen the soil and then excavate the soil using their legs. Hence the mound outside although they also use excavated earth to seal their egg chambers.

We used a Dino-Lite AM4113T to view this one as well as one of our new Explorer Pro digital microscopes that we will be launching soon.

August 26, 2013

Birth of the Electron Microscope Part 3: The Scan

The creation of the transmission electron microscope (TEM) was a revolution in the field of microscopy; for the first time, it allowed humans to see things that were too small for traditional light-based microscopes to resolve, such as individual cells and large atomic molecules, by exposing samples to a beam of electrons instead of a beam of light. However, the TEM had limitations of its own; it could only resolve an image if the sample was thin enough for electrons to pass through, so biological samples had to be preserved and sliced up, destroying any potential for viewing the minute changes in a living organism and making it impossible to view a complete image of the specimen. TEM also suffered from diffraction issues, as the electron beam could only resolve to a certain magnification level before the electrons scattered too much to form a definite image.

Shortly after the TEM’s 1931 debut, a Russian scientist named Manfred von Ardenne invented a true electron-based microscope that worked on a slightly different principle, and patented the Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) in 1937. This machine finally enabled scientists to see complete specimens in high detail, and resolve three-dimensional shapes. Instead of relying on a beam of electrons to carry the image away from the specimen, the scanning electron microscope works by scanning the beam across the specimen in a series of rectangular areas. This technique is known as raster scanning, and it is common in computer graphics; it’s how printers create images on paper, and how older CRT televisions created their images. When an SEM scans a specimen, the electron beam loses energy; this energy is converted into heat, scattered electrons, X-rays, and light emission. The SEM’s lenses can detect this energy, and it maps these signals into an image based on where the electron beam was located when it lost that particular amount of energy. By scanning in this manner, an SEM can resolve specimens as three-dimensional shapes.

The specimens in an SEM must be electrically conductive, in order to attract the electrons in the first place. While metals require very little preparation, non-conductive specimens must be coated with a very thin layer of gold, platinum, or tungsten. The SEM uses an electron gun much like the TEM, and uses a tiny cathode of tungsten at its tip. The SEM also requires the specimen to sit in a vacuum, in order to prevent interference from artifically disrupting the electron beam.

There are other types of electron microscopes, but the SEM was a major breakthrough because it allowed researchers to capture minute details of things like a house fly’s eye, a snowflake, or an ant’s head. Special environmental SEMs can observe samples that are in low-pressure environments (rather than complete vacuums) and do not require biological materials to be coated in gold. It is highly useful for seeing biological specimens, even scanning still-living insects.

April 29, 2013

History of Photomicrography

We’re surrounded by an abundance of technology, nowadays so it can sometimes be hard to imagine what it was like to look through a microscope for the very first time in the 1600s. Before the invention of the compound (multi-lensed) microscope, people believed that the world was comprised solely of what could be seen with the naked eye; it must have been overwhelming to realize what humanity had been missing! Once optical microscopy took off, scientists could finally get a detailed look at everything from well-known insects to completely new bacteria and understand how the tiny structures of a material affected its behavior.

Scientists are well-known for conducting experiments and documenting every detail of their actions. So it’s not surprising that the great analytical minds of the day began to sketch out the details of what they saw under the microscope  in order to preserve the images for future reference. These images came to be known as micrographs, and they have evolved alongside the microscope in terms of their level of detail and use of technology.

Initially, micrographs were hand-drawn sketches detailing what the observer saw on the slide. One of the first known images made with a microscope was drawn by Francesco Stelluti, who published a sheet of bee anatomy in 1630. Thirty-five years later, scientist Robert Hooke wrote and published Micrographia, the first major book about microscopy. The tome detailed his observations: the eyeball of a fly, a plant cell, insect wings, and a huge fold-out engraving of a louse. Micrographia was a monumental best-seller that also coined the biological term ‘cell’ after Hooke’s famous inspection of a piece of cork.

Basic sketches remained an easy method for documenting microscopic images for many years. When photography technology caught up, people would often simply hold a standard camera up to a microscope eyepiece and take a picture; after all, the camera was designed to resemble the viewpoint of a human eye, so it made sense to try to capture the slide permanently by exposing it to film. This technique is called the afocal method’. A typical optical microscope emits parallel light rays from its source up into the ocular, so an image can be created using a camera that is made for capturing very distant objects; those lenses are designed to work with parallel light as well. The eyepieces of both the ocular and the camera must be carefully chosen to work together to capture a clear image.

The direct imaging method is far more straightforward: both the eyepiece of the microscope and the lens of the camera are removed, and the camera is placed on the microscope tube so that its shutter surface matches the primary image plane projected by the microscope. You can also purchase mechanical adapters, which attach the camera to the microscope tube directly and allow for a much clearer method of focusing. Digital photography has made micrographs much easier to produce. Modern microscopes may contain a built-in camera and USB connection, which will allow you to plug them into a computer and record images directly onto the hard drive. However, a more flexible approach is to buy a standard microscope and add an external microscope camera. That way, you can use different cameras on the same microscope and vice versa. As important, you do not need to buy an entirely new unit if the camera software fails. Whatever your method, microscope imaging, or photomicrography, has grown and changed alongside microscopy, recording humanity’s findings for future research and posterity.

January 30, 2013


Harvard has done it again! This time scientists in the laboratory of Federico Capasso at Harvard’s Schoolof Engineeringhave designed an innovative flat lens made of gold. No more than 1,000th the width of a human hair, it focuses light via antennae as opposed to refraction required of a glass lens.

By adjusting the length and angles of the antennae, the lens can create different amplitudes and phases. Each concentric ring of antennae can then be adjusted to achieve the desired focal length. In other words, there should be no need for glass lenses and all the complexity and bulk required for achromatic correction.

Happily for microscope retailers, this new lens is currently only optimized for near-infrared light of a single wavelength used in telecommunications……but one day it will undoubtedly revolutionize light microscopy not to mention cameras and other optical systems that currently employ glass lenses.

March 03, 2011

Microscopy Innovation

“Any Sufficiently Advanced  Technology is Indistinguishable From Magic”

Such was our reaction the first time Hubble’s “Eagle Nebula” imagery beamed in from deep space. Now it seems Arthur Clarke’s prophetic words ring true once again, this time from a universe within the microscope.

From Science Daily comes news of a breakthrough in microscopy from scientists at the School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering, with potentially far-reaching implications. “World’s Most Powerful Optical Microscope: Microscope Could Solve The Cause of Viruses”, reads the headline.

They report seeing structures as small as 50 nanometers in size, 20 times smaller than the best optical microscope currently available. Nano, a prefix meaning “dwarf” in Greek, also means one billionth of a meter.

To put that in perspective, the period at the end of this sentence is almost 500,000 nanometers in diameter.  Which means they’ve effectively moved beyond the electron microscope – well beyond it, and the implications are significant.

Read the full article here, and enjoy learning a bit of  modern magic.

September 23, 2010

Fascinating artistic photomicroscopy from Daniel Geduld

Daniel’s microscopy photos is a brilliant blog showcasing his artistic images of a variety of items that can be found around the house! Daniel uses advanced techniques like focus stacking and image stitching software to turn the extremely small into artistic works that are truly intriguing! Take a look for yourself…

Microscopic image of photographic negative

Microscopic image of photographic negative

December 09, 2009

PICTURES: Best Microscopic-Life Images of 2009 Named

An image featuring a water fleas crown of thorns--the snaking ridge at top left--took top honors in the 2009 BioScapes microscope imaging contest, announced earlier this month. If water flea parents sense that their habitat is shared by their main predators, tadpole shrimp, the flea offspring sport these pointy crowns--which are unappetizing to the shrimp.

An image featuring a water flea's "crown of thorns"--the snaking ridge at top left--took top honors in the 2009 BioScapes microscope imaging contest, announced earlier this month. If water flea parents sense that their habitat is shared by their main predators, tadpole shrimp, the flea offspring sport these pointy crowns--which are unappetizing to the shrimp.

National Geographic has announced the 2009 Best Microscopic Life Images winners and they are absolutely stunning.

Have a look here…

December 08, 2009

Scanning Tunneling Microscope Technique Yields Tiniest Battery

Electrochemists looking to apply their skills to the nascent field of nanotechnology have created an itsy-bitsy battery, 100 of which would fit into a single human red blood cell!

The record-small battery consists of pillars of copper and silver laid down on a graphite surface with a scanning tunneling microscope (STM), says Reginald M. Penner of the University of California, Irvine. Penner calculates that the battery generates one-fiftieth of a volt during its 45-minute lifespan.

Source: Science News; Pennisi, Elizabeth

Read more here…

December 07, 2009

Have yourself a microscopic Christmas! The world’s smallest snowman at just .01 mm wide!

Scientists at the National Physcial Laboratory in the UK assembled the tiny snowman using microscopes and tools designed to manipulate nano-particles. The little guy’s width is only .01mm wide… which is one fifth of the width of a human hair! Click the link below to check out the photos!

The worlds smallest snowman is just one fifth of the width of a strand of hair and is made of two tiny tin beads

The world's smallest snowman is just one fifth of the width of a strand of hair and is made of two tiny tin beads

[ Read more at: Daily Mail Science & Technology ]

December 03, 2009

National Geographic Photomicrography Winners

Check out National Geographic ‘Best Tiny Microscopic Life’ picture awards at

They offer some remarkable images produced from all over the world. My favorite is the 5th placed Poisoned Algae, but they are all breathtaking to view. I wonder if there is any interest in our store running a light microscope image competition? Let us know!

March 23, 2009

Paintings on a Pinhead!

Top 10 uses for a pinhead? Depending on your use of English, you may come up with a couple of practical answers that relate to sewing or to verbal abuse. I guarantee that painting Bart Simpson or Elvis Presley on a pinhead is not among them……but they are to Willard Wigan. Take a look at these amazing microscopic paintings that Willard specializes in, all painted using a microscope.

There is no end, apparently, to the ingenious uses to which a microscope can be put!

November 12, 2008

‘Super microscope’ open for business

Imagine being able to see something 10,000 times thinner than a piece of your own hair. Or unravel a spider’s recipe for spinning silk as strong as steel.

It’s now possible with the new Isis 2 target station in Oxfordshire, a “super microscope” that uses electron beams instead of light waves to achieve a magnification level that surpasses all others.

Isis’ first neutron source opened in 1984 and has been invaluable to engineers, helping them to solve a myriad of everyday occurrences like how to efficiently make fabric softener, but Isis 2 will open doors to bigger science. According to BBC News, “At its core is a lump of tungsten metal the size of a packet of biscuits – the ‘target’ – into which pulses of protons are fired at 84 percent of the speed of light. The target radiates neutrons like a discoball scatters light – 20,000 million million per second.”

 Click here to read more about the Isis 2 super microscope.

Move over, electron microscope!

A team of research scientists at Autonomous University in Madrid is one step closer to creating a new kind of microscope – one that will study delicate materials by bouncing helium atoms off their surfaces. The team, led by Rodolfo Miranda, has completed work on an ultrasmooth mirror, what will become an integral part of the atomic microscope.

Unlike the electron microscope, which can potentially annihilate a subject-in-view with its strong electron beams, the atomic microscope will rely on a low-energy beam of helium atoms to get a more precise image of a structure’s surface.

Miranda claims the mirror, which is less than an inch wide, is the world’s smoothest.

Read the entire story at