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Explorations with the Microscope

Presentation of Giorgio Carboni, December 2006. Updated on September 2007
Translation edited by Mark Porter.




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A microscope is an extraordinary instrument, but without any help people often do not know what to observe. A young child will usually just look at a hair, then at an ant or at a fly squashed between two slides, and then at a finger. At this point the child does not know what else to observe, and probably moves on to another activity. More or less the same happens with an older child or an adult, with the difference that they will put between the slides a leg of an ant or a wing of a fly and not the whole insect. Many of them will also try to look at the well-known drop of water, but most of them will not succeed in seeing anything in it. The few who succeed in seeing some protozoa or unicellular algae will tend to limit their observations to this field. What follows in this guide is a collection of articles to guide your observations with the microscope. The articles propose different kinds of exploration, all of them wide-ranging and enchanting. With this guide, you can discover the marvels which surround you. Prepare to enter into worlds whose existence was unsuspected!

It is not possible to describe all the things you can see with this instrument, therefore in this guide I'll limit myself to mentioning only some of the more common and interesting lifeforms to be observed, and some of the possible explorations. These first steps could serve as a basis for more in-depth and systematic researches.

As you know, the articles of FSG do not want to limit themselves to proposing an experiment or the construction of an instrument, but they seek to introduce readers to a given argument, they try to stimulate their curiosity and instill the desire to continue to obtain information and to operate in a certain field. Many guides to microscopy offer only directions for a series of simple observations. These have to be performed exactly as written and, when finished, the reader does not know how to continue with other activities that might stimulate him.

Each guide to observing with a microscope has its particular approach to the subject. This guide also tries to introduce readers to biology and in particular to the exploration of nature by means of the microscope, but to do this it relies on their learning capabilities. This guide tries to connect with biology text-books, and to be an experimental support to those valuable books. As we know, objects are seen by our eyes, but the actual perception involves the brain. This means that if we are well prepared we will be able to perceive much more things of those we could see without it. I'll try to put together the aesthetic appreciation of the images, something that I consider of high importance, and the attempt to understand what you are admiring.

I'm also convinced that a theoretical preparation without practical confirmation, and without experimentation and direct observation, is not very useful and it will soon be forgotten. With this guide, I would like to lead you to pass from the observation and investigation of nature to the study of biology text-books - and vice versa. Such a continual passage between experimentation and study will strongly expand your knowledge and your ability to interact with nature, and will give you autonomy in your researches.

As for the theoretical aspects, you can refer to four main kinds of books:
- biology text-books for colleges,
- handbooks with drawings and handbooks with photographs to help you to recognize microscopic features,
- guides for identifying the species.
The reader who feels the need can also obtain theses, treatises and other specialized texts like those used in the universities, but we will stop there. I will also give you the address of some Internet websites. As you may know, these websites often change their address, so do not count too much on them and be ready to track them down by means of search engines.

In the different articles of this guide, I mentioned the topics the reader should study from time to time. As we do not exhaust the subject of biology, I think it will be useful to the reader to complete the study of this book.

On the basis of the knowledge you obtain, you will better understand what you are seeing, and you can search for things which otherwise you would not have suspected exist. By reading texts like those mentioned, you will realize how important it is to join observations with the microscope with the study of the biology texts. This knowledge strengthens the ability of understand what you observe, and it will enable you to pass from just seeing to understanding. By placing the study of the texts and your microscope observations side to side, your discovery of nature will become richer and more fascinating. You will also be able to go ahead with your explorations under your own direction, over many years and even for all your life.

This guide has been conceived for European environments. Readers who live in other parts of the world should obtain texts suitable for their own ecosystems. Readers should have a text which allows them to identify the life forms that they meet, at least at the general level of the genus.

These articles will give you also some information for making wet mounts of botanical tissues such as leaves, stems and roots. You will find also a handbook that describes how to make permanent mounts of animal and botanical tissues. Making permanent slides is quite complicated, but producing a permanent slide for microscopy can give great satisfaction.

One article of this guide is devoted to "Micromounts", little mineral specimens that are best appreciated using a microscope or a lens, and is intended to be an introduction to the world of minerals.

There are two main types of microscope used in biology: the stereoscopic microscope and the compound microscope for biology. Those people who do not know how to use those instruments can refer to the seventh article of this guide.

With the microscope, try to observe what is described in the single articles, writing down what you see in a notebook and adding drawings and photographs. 

Obviously, these articles can also be useful in schools, whose teachers will be able to organize very interesting lessons around them.

In the pictures, the length "L" of the organisms excludes the antennae and other appendixes, and the term "field" indicates the length of the longer side of a picture.

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Please note that for all material published in Fun Science Gallery, neither myself nor the other authors or collaborators assume any liability for any losses or damages caused as a result of any projects described in this guide. For more information, please read the page of Warnings.



001 Curtis H., Barnes N.S.; Biology; Worth Publishers Inc; 744 pp.
002 Purves W.K. et al; The Science of Biology; Sinauer Associates Inc; 1250 pp.
003 Gerald and Lee Durrell; A Practical Guide for the Amateur Naturalist; A.A. Knopf, 230 pp.
004 Hampton C.H. et al.; Classroom Creature Culture: Algae to Anoles; National Science Teachers Association. Breeding little animals.
005 Morholt E., Brandwein P.F.; A Sourcebook for the Biological Sciences; Saunders College Publishers; 813 pp.
A lot of biological experiments and activities for schools.
006 Humason G.L.; Animal Tissue Techniques; W.H. Freeman & Co; 660 pp.; The Johns Hopkins University Press
How to treat and to stain animals tissues.


0001 -  Microscopy-UK, Resources for the microscopy enthusiast
0002 -  Micscape, on-line magazine of Microscopy-uk
0003 - Internet Resources for Biology Students
0004 -  Biology Internet Links
0005 -  Sites of microscopy
0006 -  Scott's Botanical Links Search Results (links to pages of botany)
0007 -  Biology Teaching & Learning Resources

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