Looking and Seeing and Other Pedantics

Imaging is often one of the most rapidly changing areas of microscopy, but some things never change. -K

When that dutch fellow peered through his simple microscope with its tiny lens he was eager to share the fantastic sights even as he labored to keep his methods secret. The construction of his microscope made it very difficult for others to use and photography wasn’t around yet, so to show others he had no recourse save travel (to demonstrate the use if his apparatus) and the pen. Even today the drawings of Leeuwenhoek glory in their accuracy and detail, but they are an extreme example.

The average microscopist need not dwell in tedium to capture an image, a push of a button on any number of devices can capture a flawlessly accurate image in a split second. CCD and CMOS cameras may be had quite economically; even traditional film cameras can be operated quickly at nominal expense. The availability and ease of photomicrography has steadily contributed to the decline of drawing. In fact at its inception the word “micrograph” referred only to a drawn image, but with the rise of photography it has come to take on the same meaning as the more explicit “photomicrograph.” For simplicity the word micrograph used here will be in reference to drawings only.

As I student I recall only the briefest day or two in biology being spent with the microscope. During that time we children were put to the task of sketching out what we saw through the eyepiece. The motivation then was less to provide a permanent record but to slow down our observations and force vision rather than sight only. Their are entire volumes of art theory written on the disparity between sight and vision, looking and seeing. Without showing too much of the art school pedant that I am let me just say that the way one scrutinizes a subject when creating a sketch is far different than the way one looks when appreciating a sight for its appeal alone.

Consider a photograph of a camouflaged creature. Even looking for it specifically one might overlook it, yet if taking the time to reproduce the photograph by hand with pen and paper the previously obscured specimen will quickly become obvious. For an other example, consider the way one might look differently at the layout of a garden if one wished to recreate it on ones owns property, as opposed to the way one might look when simply appreciating the flowers.

Yes, drawing still has value in microscopy. That value now lies less in the image produced however, and more in the introduction it provides to active sight. In the next few posts we’ll be looking at different methods and apparatus used to capture micrographs. Don’t worry if you’ve never been a fantastic artist, there are plenty of tricks and there’s no need to judge harshly.

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