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Some Thoughts on Recreational / Amateur Microscopy

Found in: Editorial

In this post, I’m pondering about amateur microscopy and astronomy. There is an evident imbalance and I wonder why.

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Amatuer Microscopy and Amateur Astronomy

I don’t know how many of you still remember comet Hale-Bopp, which became visible back in 1996-97. The comet was the incentive for me to become involved in amateur astronomy. The Internet, at that time, was still young and for this reason I obtained most of the info about the comet from astronomy magazines that I bought at the magazine store located in the local train station. I remember, that there were about 5-7 different astronomy magazines (in several languages) in the shop. The range was quite impressive: Some magazines were quite advanced and scientific. Others were much more down-to-earth, targeting readers interested in a more casual and popular approach. I scrutinized them in detail, and found one which had the right mix between science and hands-on advice and one which was just right for beginners. I subscribed to the magazine, looked at the ads, and mail-ordered a small telescope. I became a star-gazer. Together with two other friends, I spent many hours in the cold night looking at the stars and trying to identify them with the help of a star chart. We had a great time. And I remember that I was even crazy enough to keep a diary of my observations.

Just one year later, in 1998, I also got involved with amateur microscopy and spent a little fortune on a compound microscope. This was not the first time for me to use microscopes, I did quite a bit of bright-field and phase-contrast work during my university studies, mostly in the field of bacteriology. At that time I used different staining techniques to characterize the bacteria that we isolated, to help us in the identification process. At the end of my studies, I decided to continue microscopy as a hobby and to broaden my microscopic endeavors into exploring my surroundings. I obtained water samples, looked at the algae, purified diatoms, photographed the crystallization of Vitamin C and citric acid. I also made video recordings of these events and had some nice educational material. But this is a different story.

I quickly realized that the life of a recreational microscopist resembles the life of a “lone wolf”. Microscopy magazines with a recreational approach are scarce, at least I could find none of them in the magazine shop. Many science journals from the university library did address a range of microscopy-related issues, but the topics were far too specific and not understandable to someone without a scientific background in the particular research area. In many cases the topics revolved around more advanced electron microscopic techniques – interesting, for certain, provided that you understood the science behind it. Very few magazines had the “amateur-approach” of astronomy magazines. In particular, nice colorful pictures were missing.

Naturally I do understand that there is a fundamental difference between true science journals and “recreational” magazines, which can be bought in a magazine shop. A notable exception is the German microscopy magazine Mikrokosmos, which tries to place a stronger focus on the “observation” aspect. The online magazine Micscape also goes into this direction. Just a pity that they don’t also offer a nicely formatted PDF version (I’d even be willing to pay for one, if it’s not too expensive).

Now why is this? Why is there such an imbalance between amateur microscopy and astronomy? Does it have historic reasons? Maybe the entry barrier into amateur astronomy is higher (equipment costs, knowledge required etc.) and therefore the support by astronomy clubs and organizations may be more important than for microscopy. Maybe these organizations helped to promote and support amateur astronomy over many years and there is a stronger tradition and community. Or could it be, that there are indeed many amateur microscopists around, but that they are simply not organized into clubs and therefore not visible to the public? But even if this were the case, there should be many amatuer microscopy magazines around, which is not the case.

Maybe microscopes simply do not offer as many possibilities for the technical tinkerer as telescopes. Amateur telescope making seems to be so popular that this activity even has its own acronym: “ATM”. Try to Google “amateur microscope making”, and you will be awarded with an astonishing 2 hits (yes this is two). The search string “amateur telescope making” gives you 30900 hits (August 2010). OK, maybe this comparison is a bit unfair, considering the fact that quite usable microscopes can already be obtained for a comparatively low price, but the discrepancy is startling nevertheless. Still, I recommend this link here, it’s pretty good http://www.funsci.com/fun3_en/ucomp1/ucomp1.htm

In any case, I’ll continue to publish my thoughts on this issue and encourage you to write a comment.

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