What is amateur microscopy?

Amateur microscopy is the recreational use of microscopes. Plain and simple. A veterinary doctor who uses microscopes in order to identify parasites in the fur of animals is not an amateur microscopist. He/she uses the microscope not for recreational purposes but in order to treat an animal. Researchers who use microscopes to study the events taking place in cells are also not amateur microscopists, because they use microscopes as a means to solve a particular research problem. This naturally does not mean that they do not “like” to use the microscope. Rather the device is a tool, a means, to achieve another goal. As the name “amateur” implies, amateur microscopists use these devices for the love of it. Amateur microscopists love microscopes either for their technology, their design, their antiquity (in case of collectors) or for the love of natural observation.

The type of equipment used is not relevant for distinguishing between amateurs and professionals. Doctors (professional microscope users) sometimes use comparatively inexpensive devices, because this is all that they ever need for their routine observations. I remember one doctor who had a microscope with only one objective attached. This was all he needed. He did not even focus the image, he simply dropped the slide onto the stage and quickly checked for the presence of certain microorganisms.

Advanced amateurs sometimes invest quite a bit into advanced equipment, such as DIC (Differential Interference Contrast) which produces quite spectacular images that appear to be 3D. Some research laboratories, yet, own light microscopes which cost as much as an apartment. It depends all on the research objectives.

Amateur, enthusiast, citizen, recreational and hobby microscopy

The terms amateur, enthusiast, citizen, recreational and hobby microscopy all mean the same. While the word “amateur” originally comes from the Latin word for “lover” (ie. the lover of an activity), it has, unfortunately, obtained somewhat negative associations. Often amateurs are considered to be less capable, knowledgeable and competent than the “professionals” , who use microscopes to earn a living. But just because someone does not use microscopes to earn a living does not mean that these individuals are more or less capable than the “pros”. Professional microscope users such as researchers often use the microscopes for highly specific tasks and therefore often require highly specialized and expensive equipment to solve specific research problems. This does not mean, however, that amateur microscopists are automatically more or less competent in their field of interest than their professional counterparts. In order to avoid the negative connotation of the word “amateur”, other terms have been proposed, including enthusiast microscopy, citizen microscopy, recreational microscopy and hobby microscopy.

Throughout this book I am using the term “amateur microscopy”. I am doing this because I want to contribute to the changing of the sometimes negative associations that accompany this word. By simply avoiding the term, one does not change its meaning. Personal opinion.

Potato starch grains in bright field.
Potato starch grains in bright field.

What is recreational and fascinating about using microscopes?

I am talking from personal experience here. For me, microscopy is a “meditative” hobby. It allows me to sit quietly in front of the microscope for an hour or two and gives me the possibility to withdraw into a different world. I observe the paramecia of a water sample, the movement of amoeba across the slide and also the aesthetic arrangement of cells of the cross section of a plant. Sometimes I discover a dead insect on my window and I make a permanent slide of the wing. I like collecting.

Switching on a microscope is faster than switching on a computer. It is therefore easy to fit in an observation session when there is otherwise little time available. I can therefore exercise the hobby on a quite regular basis and without pre-planning. There is no need to allocate large amounts of time in a block.

For me microscopy is a great way to balance out an often stressful day of work. It allows me to focus and concentrate on a single task. For me this is a mental balance to my day at work, where I have to manage multiple events simultaneously. I have to work with a lot of people. Microscopy gives me an opportunity to focus on myself and on a single task. Occasionally I see some interesting structures or nice patterns. I then take a picture of these objects and possibly even order a print for my living room wall. This gives me a feeling of satisfaction.

I do not need expensive equipment either. I like the relative simplicity of the hobby and the possibility to explore a range of unlimited samples. Maybe it is a bad comparison, but microscopy is a little bit like playing chess. The rules of chess are easy to learn, but the game itself can unfold to be highly complex. Likewise, microscopes are relatively easy to learn how to operate, but the possibilities for exploration and for discovery are endless.

For some people the microscope is a meaningful addition to an already existing hobby. People who collect stamps, minerals or fossils might find stereo microscopes not only useful but also a great enhancement of their hobby.

Maple leaf veins
 Maple leaf veins after the removal of the soft tissue. The leaf was dried and then scanned at high resolution.