Think small

microscope image of blood

My blood yesterday, magnified 1,200 times.

My 12-year-old daughter has generous grandparents. Her paternal grandmother inquired about Christmas-gift possibilities. My daughter came up with the idea of a microscope. Her grandmother was all over it.

My daughter’s grandmother’s father had given me a microscope when I was around the same age. I remember it well. There was a light that eventually burned out with a mirror on the flip-side. I had some prepared slides — bug legs and such. I remember attempting to manually adjust the slide, touching it ever so slightly and being surprised, over and over, as the object under inspection leaped far from the field of view. The optics weren’t great when the magnification ramped up. Ultimately its flaws grew tiresome, and I grew older and lost interest.

This microscope is a completely different animal. Probably, inflation-adjusted, no more expensive — a $244 LW Scientific Student Advanced number. But highly evolved from the brown thing I had as a kid. Smooth dials to move the slide around, an LED light, much heavier, crisper optics.

My daughter has prepared slides also–pancreas cells, heart-muscle cells and so on. But the real fun is stuff that’s alive. We collected some mossy, cold pond water and were astounded at the Wild Kingdom that appeared, just a cavalcade of critters, in the smallest of drops. No need to worry about her drinking from a stream, ever again.

Blood is another good one. The photo up top is my blood, taken with a an $80 attachment from Celestron. You replace the eyepiece with a 5MP digital camera and connect it to a laptop via a USB cord. This would have been difficult to pull off with my 1970s microscope, given the lack of USB, laptops and digital cameras. It lets you do your microscopy without holding one eye shut for extended periods, and it takes photos and video. I consider it a wildly successful purpose, though we’ve only had it for a 18 hours.

My blood, yesterday, magnified 300 times.

We also took it outside during a recent snow — light flurries. The microscope went outside, covered, a half hour before we planned to use it. We let snow fall on the slides, and checked the flakes out under the lowest magnification (30x). This was before the Celestron camera arrived, so we kludged photos using an iPhone. Still, remarkable. Chihuly looks amateur by comparison (and I’m a Chihuly fan).

A snowflake at 30x magnification, taken with a cell phone camera though the microscope eyepiece.

Anyway, it’s cliche to say that microscopy opens up entirely new worlds. I think its biggest impact is psychological. You realize how much is going on that you’re oblivious to. You don’t often think about what it means that every cubic millimeter of your blood contains about 7 million red blood cells. Until you prick your pinkie, barely, with a safety pin you’ve heated with a lighter you got on the Greek island Santorini in 1994, bleed a small drop (to your daughter’s consternation — though she’s happy to check out the results), and see that your blood is a Tokyo subway car at rush hour. It’s a window into how much is involved in just one facet of one of the many systems keeping you alive.

Lucy McRae is thinking ahead. Like 2,500 years ahead

A lot of us have a hard enough time deciding what to scrounge up for dinner. Lucy McRae is thinking about life in the year 4,600.

She’s not alone. Science fiction writers have spent plenty of time imagining the distant future. But McRae is not a science fiction writer. She’s a science-fiction artist. She makes short films involving lots of silvery Mylar, condensation-soaked plastic, and edible body parts, among other things. They are gorgeous, cryptic, slow-moving and strange. [more]

Ancient craft yields storage medium of the future

An example tablet from a commission by the Kunst Historiches Museum Wien. (Courtesy of Martin Kunze)

The preservation of our collective story — so much of which is told in electronic pulses and stored in bits and bytes — may well hinge on the oldest of materials: clay.

It’s not just any clay. It’s a specially designed stoneware (the stuff of bathroom tiles) formed into 20-by-20 centimeter ceramic tablets. Martin Kunze, an Austrian ceramist and researcher, invented them, and once printed with snippets of science, politics, art, culture and much more, he stores them in a cavern in a salt mine in Hallstatt, deep in the Austrian Alps. The cavern, accessible via an 80 centimeter-wide tunnel, will naturally close up over time. There, what Kunze calls “the greatest time capsule ever” will wait for someone, someday, to find it. [more]

Robots kill, and they’re just getting started 

Gabriel Hallevy - When Robots Kill

For Gabriel Hallevy, one of the world’s leading legal thinkers in the emerging field of criminal law as it applies to intelligent machines, it started in a movie theater. The professor at Ono Academic College in Israel had already established himself as a prominent legal thinker in areas like criminal law, criminal justice, laws of evidence, and even corporate law when he sat down to watch I, Robot.

While the movie didn’t do much for Will Smith’s career, the seed it planted in Hallevy’s mind helped advance legal theory surrounding future crimes committed by intelligent machines to a point at which it’s now keeping pace with — if not out ahead of — the technologies themselves. [more]

The secret to finding life on other planets is not to look for life as we know it

University of Colorado philosopher Carol Cleland, PhD

Perhaps one day we’ll send a spacecraft to a rocky planet orbiting Proxima Centauri. And perhaps the first images arriving back from across 4.2 light years of space will feature a purple Proxima Centurian peering straight back into the camera.

In the popular imagination, alien life has tended to focus on the take-me-to-your-leader/humans-as-snacks variety. Those who have been paying attention, though, know that the life we’re most likely to find on Proxima b, Mars or anywhere else will be microscopic. That sort of life might have very little resemblance to the microbes we’re used to here on Earth.

This gives rise to what appears at first to be a scientific problem, but which in fact something else entirely. The question of how to recognize alien microbes, which astrobiologists assume to be the universe’s most common life form, is to no small degree a philosophical challenge. Philosopher Carol Cleland has been a leading voice in helping NASA and the astrobiology community figure out ways not to miss extraterrestrial microbes right under our robotic emissaries’ noses. [more]