Thursday, 19 April 2012

To See the World in a Grain of Sand

This is an antique optical microscope which I bought on ebay for £26.00 + £13.00 p&p (it is very heavy). It still needs quite a bit of restoration, as does its box, but it is beautiful even as it is.

It is difficult to establish who invented the first microscope. Some sources point to the Netherlands in the late 16th century, whereas other look to Galileo Galilei, who used an occhiolino (little eye), which was given the name ‘microscope’ by Giovanni Faber in 1625. The title of the ‘Father of Microbiology’ however is given to Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, a Dutch draper, trader and scientist who made and used small spheres of glass to magnify biological specimens. Van Leeuwenhoek corresponded with the Royal Society in London, but, after an initial success, the relationship became awkward, as the Society questioned his discovery of the previously unknown single celled organisms. A deputation went to Delft to verify Van Leeuwenhoek’s observation, and with his vindication came an invitation to become a member of the Royal Society. In the next fifty years Van Leeuwenhoek sent over five hundred letters to the Society describing his findings.

Microscopy became popular in England after the publication of Robert Hooke’s Micrographia in 1665, the world’s first scientific bestseller. In spite of its age, it remains a fascinating read – digitised version here – and in it Hooke first used the word ‘cell’ in a scientific sense (the walls of plant cells reminded him of the walls of a monk’s cell). Perhaps its most famous image is Hooke’s engraving of a flea, a plate which folds out of his book.

Robert Hooke was a polymath  - he has been called England’s Leonardo - who really ought to be better known. From his youth, Hooke was fascinated by science. Born in 1635, the teenage Hooke was ‘chemical assistant’ to Dr Thomas Willis in Oxford, where he met, and became assistant to, Robert Boyle. Through Boyle, Hooke moved in the highest scientific circle of his day, including Christopher Wren and Isaac Newton. Hooke was a frail individual, with a pronounced hunchback, and it is possible that when, in a letter to Hooke in 1676, Newton wrote, “If I have seen further it is by standing on ye sholders of Giants [sic]," that he was making a thinly veiled jibe at his rival’s disability. There was no love lost between Hooke and Newton, and it is said that when Newton became President of the Royal Society, in a bid to deny posterity, to have destroyed the only known portrait of Hooke, and to have ‘misplaced’ many of Hooke’s papers in the Society’s archives. It is highly likely that Hooke’s reputation as an irascible curmudgeon is a result of a posthumous ‘hatchet job’ by others, as his own personal accounts show him to be a popular dining companion and steadfast friend. He was known for his skills as an arbitrator and surveyor, and his scrupulous honesty. Following the Great Fire of London, in 1666, Hooke was Surveyor to the City and chief assistant to Wren. He was the architect of many famous buildings and collaborated with Wren on St Paul’s Cathedral – the dome was constructed to Hooke’s conception.

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