An Analysis on the Evolution and Impact of the Microscope’s Timeless Role in Society

There has been perhaps no tool more essential for scientific research than the microscope. The microscope has allowed humans to see, observe, and study aspects of life that would otherwise be invisible and impossible to understand. Humans uniquely possess innate curiosity which compels us to seek understanding of phenomenon we cannot directly experience, observe, or otherwise explain. It is incontestable that knowledge of the microscopic world has changed society. Rapid development of technology has allowed human culture to now seek for answers and fulfill curiosity scientifically. Rather than depending on sole rationale, philosophy, or speculated spiritual influences, many wonders of the universe can now be explained through concrete scientific evidence. For example, human illness used to be a mystery which some cultures explained by legends of evil spirits or angered gods. However, the invention of the microscope gave humans the power to see the microorganisms like bacteria and virus’ which physically trigger immune responses in the body and cause people to feel “sick”. Humans do not naturally have this power and have, in a sense, become “transhuman” because of microscopic and other optical lens technology. This technology is so exceptional because it has been utilized and adapted in countless different aspects of society for so many years. It is apparent that technology is radically evolving, so much so that many technologies have been replaced by a more efficient or higher functioning design, system, or methodical machine (ie. the typewriter by the computer, VHS by DVD’s and online streaming, the standard telephone by “smartphones”, etc.). However, the microscope is unique in the fact that it has earned an essentially timeless role in society by being the foundation of past and future scientific development.

This does not mean that the microscope has not evolved or been improved at all. The microscope has come a long way since its initial invention in the 1600’s. Yet, still to this day it embraces the same theoretical design and function while contributing to rapid technological progress. Civilizations have been embracing optics to enhance vision for centuries long before microscopes. Some of the earliest optic lenses have been around since 700 BC. Originally developed from polished crystal, civilizations have been modifying and perfecting the utilization of this technology ever since. Glass lenses first were developed by the ancient Greeks and Romans, but were not popularized until the Middle Ages.  The first “microscope” was developed around 1600 by Hans and Zacharias Jansen in the Netherlands (Ellis, 1998, p. 4- 10). Using the concept of the eye glass, the Jansen’s observed that combining or stacking multiple lenses together allows them to amplify the magnification of their object being observed even further. The multiple lens design gives way to the name most commonly used today, a “compound microscope” (Baker, 1742, p. 2). The design of the compound microscope is fairly simple. There is a movable platform where a specimen is placed, usually on a glass slide, to be observed. Underneath this platform is an adjustable light source to highlight features and characteristics of the specimen under magnification. Above the platform are a series of lenses with different powers of magnification called “objectives”. Objectives can be switched between while using the microscope, allowing the observer to more easily find a specimen on a slide (at low power) and then focus the image using the adjustable platform. Microscopes that are “parfocal” stay relatively in focus even when switching to higher or lower power objective lenses. Above the objectives are the ocular or eyepiece lens. The lenses typically have a magnification of “10X) meaning that they enhance the magnifying capabilities of the object lenses by an additional tenfold. For example, if a specimen was being observed using a “40X” objective lens, then the total magnification would be “400X”, enlarging the specimen’s image 400 times bigger than the original. (Mohler, K., Elasky, K., Ibba, M, 2008, p. 16-18). However, compound microscopes gave way to great manufacturing challenges at the time and were not always the chosen method for researchers. Once greater manufacturing capabilities were developed, modern science embraced the compound microscope design for its heightened efficiency and multi-optical functions. The term “microscope” refers to any device with “whatever structure or contrivance, that can make small objects appear larger than they do to the naked eye” (Baker 1742, p 1). In order to be effective for microscopic research, a microscope must have three essential features. The tool must be able to magnify small objects at very close distances (as oppose to its cousin technology, the telescope, which magnifies from very far distances). It must also be able to resolve the images of the objects, which is dependent on focusing the light waves by adjusting the distance between the lenses. Finally, it must have powerful enough magnification capabilities to make details visible on a specimen that were not previously capable of being observed by natural human eyesight.

Early microbiologists such as Anton Van Leeuwenhoek used these criteria to develop powerful (at the time) single lens scopes to make the earliest discoveries in this field. Leeuwenhoek, who became known as the “Father of Microbiology”, designed and manufactured his own instruments. Using his specified single lens scopes, which could achieve close to 200X magnification, he became the first to observe and describe a live “microorganism”. Leeuwenhoek based his discoveries off of preceding research on microscopic structures of already known macro organisms. One of the most influential researchers at this time doing this was Robert Hooke. Before Leeuwenhoek, Hooke used microscope technology to develop a theory of biological cells in living organisms. Building off of this research on microscopic structures, Leeuwenhoek discovered that there are lifeforms that are functioning independently at this incredibly tiny scale (Egerton, 2006, p 47-48). These discoveries at a microscopic level have led to greater understanding of how life on a larger scale functions.

It may seem though that once these discoveries have been made, that microscopic technology is no longer as pertinent to society. We have so much recorded evidence from past studies, surely there is enough known information to satisfy any future questions about the universe. Wrong. The driving force of human curiosity exponentially expands with greater knowledge. As more information about the universe’s mysteries that becomes available, the more questions that can be fathomed and more theories that need to be pursued. The microscope provides the critical abilities for future research in biology, physics, and chemistry to investigate the universe and provide new understandings to these continually developing questions. Today’s technological advances have allowed the microscope to become more refined and able to magnify at higher powers than ever before. Scientists have developed different and more advanced types of light microscopes in addition to the compound “bright-field” to more closely observe specific characteristics of microscopic specimens. These enhanced light microscopes include “phase-contrast” and “fluorescent” scopes. Researchers are even starting to embrace the use of electron microscopes. “As of today, the shortest wavelength of visible light, 450nm, sets limitations on the resolving power of even the beat light microscope lenses. The use of an electron microscope, however, enables the viewer to go beyond this limit by employing waves of electrons rather than waves of light to visualize objects” (Mohler, K., Elasky, K., Ibba, M. 2012, p. 27) There are two main types of electron microscopes, the transmission electron microscope (TEM) and the scanning  electron microscope (SEM). The TEM is utilized to see through specimens and observe internal structures such as mitochondria or nuclei. SEM scopes are utilized to observe specimen surfaces such as capsules or pili structures (Mohler, K., Elasky, K., Ibba, M. 2012, p. 26-27). These advanced adaptations of microscope technology have established commanding influence and proved to be a respected tool of resent scientific research,.

However, the microscope is not just a research tool. It is also an irreplaceable instrument in education to convey understanding of already known concepts and information. Young children are often first exposed to a simplified version of microscope technology through magnifying glasses. Children can be taught the valuable skills of investigation, develop critical thinking, and heightened curiosity by exploring the world around them and discovering answers for themselves. “We have now become aware of the possibility of arranging the entire human environment as a work of art, as a teaching machine designed to maximize perception and to make every day learning a process of discovery” (McLuhen, 2001, p. 69). Society then introduces more expensive and complex microscopes to students as they transition into higher level courses throughout high school and college. When studying and trying to understand microorganisms or microscopic concepts such as cells, it is more effective and meaningful if students can physically experience the information being presented (Raymond, 2009, p. 1-4).

Microscopes are also essential part of society by allowing law enforcement to examine forensic evidence. New forensic technology, such as the discovery of DNA, has revolutionized how criminal investigations are conducted and how offenders can be convicted. Although the media has exaggerated much of forensic capability through television shows like “CSI”, law enforcement is now significantly more capable of accurately convicting an offender for a crime. Microscopes also opened the door for other technological concepts to explore development at very small scales. The inventions of micro and “Nano technologies” are being rapidly incorporated in everyday technologies to make them slimmer, lighter, higher functioning, and more appealing to consumers. Without ability to “see” at these microscopic levels, development of these other technologies could not be conceived.

It is evident that humans are becoming increasingly reliant on optical technology in all aspects of everyday life. As Marshal McLuhan described in The Medium is the Massage, “All media are extensions of some human faculty- psychic or physical” (p. 26).  Today’s society is using the microscope as an extension of the eye. This extension can be seen as transforming human ability and developing the “transhuman” experience. Transhumanism is a developing concept that human nature is rapidly evolving because of widespread technological enhancement on physical, intellectual, and psychological competencies. Optical lenses do not just enhance scientific discovery, but also everyday life. Even simple optical technology such as eyeglasses excel human’s natural sight limitations or at least compromise for natural human deficiencies Eye glasses are utilized by millions of people to enhance their inherently poor eyesight. Today, the simple eyeglass has been even further reformed as contacts. This allows sight challenged people to perform a multitude of ordinary tasks, like reading a book or driving a car with ease, whereas their poor eyesight would have naturally hindered or prevented them from doing so. There is no doubt that development of modern medicine has been dependent on research through a microscope and has greatly contributed to advances in society. Diagnosing diseases has become more easy and accurate by being able to actually observe a specific pathogen under microscopes. Researchers can then grow these pathogens under test conditions and test methods to try to destroy it. Modern medical science has therefore become extremely efficient.  However, some would argue that not all of modern medicine’s consequences to society have been positive. Increased life span has blessed modern generations with longer lives, but is also posing socioeconomic problems in the healthcare systems. Modern medicine has also posed several ethical and moral questions that are heavy topics of conflict and debate in society such as abortion, genetic engineering, or life support. These issues pose a critical question whether or not our transhuman capabilities with microscopes is allowing us to make technological evolutions that are not meant to be or simply should not be made by the human race.

Despite these moral questions, scientific exploration and technological development will continue to satisfy the ever persistent curiosity and innovation of humans. It is imperative for understanding macroscopic problems and mysteries to be able to first observe the microscopic factors and mechanisms involved. The microscope has been the standard and everlasting technology used to reach these understandings and conduct new investigation. Even though technology has transformed the microscope and greatly enhanced its capabilities, the mechanism remains timeless. New electron microscopes have commanded new routes of research, but have their limitations and specific uses. The compound light microscope is universal and can be utilized in almost any laboratory. Microscopes our foundational education tools for aspiring scientists and provide the basis of micro technology. As long as human curiosity pursues understanding of the universe, greater medical capabilities, or mechanical technology advancement, the microscope will remain a foundational and necessary tool in society.

References

Baker, H. (1742). The microscope made easy: Or, I. The nature, uses, and magnifying powers of the best kinds of microscopes described, calculated, and explained: for the Instruction of such, particularly, as desire to search into the Wonders of the Minute Creation, tho’ they are not acquainted with Optics. Together with Full Directions how to prepare, apply, examine, and preserve all Sorts of Objects, and proper Cautions to be observed in viewing them. II. An account of what surprizing discoveries have been already made by the microscope: With useful Reflections on them. And also a great variety of new experiments and observations, pointing out many uncommon Subjects for the Examination of the Curious. By Henry Baker, Fellow of the Royal Society, and Member of the Society of Antiquaries, in London. Illustrated with Copper Plates. London: Printed for R. Dodsley, at Tully’s Head in Pall-Mall.

Egerton, Frank N. (2006). “A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 19: Leeuwenhoek’s Microscopic Natural History”. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 87: 47-48

Ellis, W. S. (1998). Glass: From the first mirror to fiber optics, the story of the substance that changed the world. New York: Avon Books.

McLuhan, M. (2001). The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press.

Mohler, K., Elasky, K., Ibba, M. (2012) Microbiology 4000 Lab Manual. The Ohio State University Department of Microbiology. p. 15-28

Raymond, Coleman.(2009) “Can histology and pathology be taught without microscopes? The advantages and disadvantages of virtual histology”, Acta Histochemica, Volume 111, Issue 1, Pages 1-4

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