Sunday, February 19, 2012

3.5x-90x Trinocular Stereo Microscope + USB Digital Camera and 54 LED Ring Light

Beautiful isn't it?

It's what I want for my birthday.

It's something I don't talk about very much, but that I've always regretted. I didn't stay in university, mostly because I couldn't justify the enormous debt that was going to accrue and at the time I was there, in my early 20s, I really had no idea what my interests were. But I really wish I had had the self-knowledge and the courage then to go into the natural sciences.

So little did I know myself and so deeply afraid was I of Doing It Wrong, that I finally realised I needed to understand myself better before committing to such enormous, long-term expenses. Like a lot of modern people that age, I had no sense at all of what I really loved, no sense of my natural aptitudes or even interests and I was never calm enough to have time to figure it out. The result of having been cut loose without guidance at too early an age.

I'm glad now that I didn't stay. It really would have been time and most of all money wasted. (Japanese? French philosophy? What the...?). But it's a shame, now that I do know myself better, that I am of an age where I have no more interest in making a massive directional change. I'm very happy with what I do and fairly proud of myself for having worked and read my way into it on my own, and I don't want to go "back to school".

It wasn't until I was in my 20s, as I noted below, that I discovered that I was not really bad at maths after all and that if I had wanted to, I could certainly have upgraded and worked my way up to undergraduate level to start with biology.

Long-time readers may have noticed that this is a serious side interest. Botany, gardening, zoology, wildflowers, taxonomy, ecology (as it was called in the olden days)... Natural History, in short. It is a big ambition in art to combine these interests and do botanical painting. I hope to do a botanical and entomological catalogue of local Italian wildflowers, plants and insects. Maybe even a medicinal herbal. Certainly, one of the reasons I was most happy that cancer is (probably) over, is that now I have time to pursue these things.

It all started in childhood, and was mostly my mother's doing.

When I was still quite small, mum started her university studies, a double major in marine biology and mathematics at UVic. And she spent a lot of time with me, teaching me about the things she was studying. And of course, we had a library of books on it all, field guides, taxonomic keys and the giant, two-volume Larousse Encyclopedia of Animal Life. From an early age, I started on the books by Gerald Durrell, a personal hero. And of course, I had a sizable collection of Nature Things.

Essentially, I was homeschooled before it was trendy. Mum was studying marine biology with Alan Austin, and took courses in the summer. Well, she couldn't afford a babysitter and it was the 70s and the Left Coast so no one minded, least of all me, that she would just take me with her to classes, labs and field trips.

I'll never forget the Saturday afternoon when I was about nine and she had a lecture. I was allowed to spend the afternoon by myself in one of the salt water labs. This was a room of wonders. It had a big white tank in which were kept the specimens found on the beaches around the Islands. Alan was a specialist in seaweed, so there were all sorts of different species in the tank that were kept alive with a cycle of fresh sea water at the right temperature (cold). Fortunately, along with the seaweed collections were always little critters, various crustaceans, invertebrates, star fish, tiny crabs, and whatnot that clung to the seaweed.

Also in this lab were a set of binocular dissecting microscopes which I had been shown how to use. These were wonderful machines. They were fairly low power microscopes designed so that the viewer could see the object in 3-D, which meant no microtechnique slides were necessary. You could put the whole critter under the scope. It was dual-light, with a light on top and one underneath the glass plate to eliminate shadows.

I had also been given a student's dissecting kit and kept a notebook.

Well, needless to say the afternoon went quickly. I'll never forget finding a tiny starfish; it could not have been more than 5mm in diameter. I flipped it over and sat there for a good half hour, drawing pictures in my notebook and just watching it with its incredible multitude of colours and mathematical perfection, waving its little sucker-ended legs at me. I watched this amazing thing flip itself over several times. Incredible. (No! of course I didn't cut it up! What would be the point of that? Starfish just grow more starfish out of the cut up pieces. And besides, I was not a mean kid.)

I had less luck with a tiny hermit crab. I picked it out of the tank by its shell and I guess it panicked. It plopped right back into the water and scrambled under a leaf. I felt awful, and carefully placed its shell near where it had landed, and spent some time watching it to make sure it climbed back in. Since then I've been careful to pick hermit crabs up in my palm. They don't bite, after all.

My mother taught me how to make a trap using a jar and a net to collect interesting things from freshwater ponds and streams, how to build an underwater viewer (with a juice tin and cellophane) so you can stand in the water waist deep and look at the creatures swimming around you and how to do accurate field notes.

I wish I had kept going. One of the things that makes me mad about the Modern World is that the irrationalists have taken over the biological sciences and turned them into exercises in idiot leftist politics. When I lived in England, stomping around the countryside, I went through a period where I seriously reconsidered upgrading maths and getting into environmental sciences. I looked all over the place in vain for college programmes that didn't stink of the pseudo-religious claptrap that has become intertwined with this field.

Anyway, since that long-ago Saturday afternoon in the salt water lab, I have yearned for my own dissecting microscope. Of course, I had always thought when I was a kid that such things were only bought by universities and were impossibly expensive. But I've since learned that anyone can buy one, and there have been significant improvements on the one I used way back when. They're still pretty pricey, but in the hundreds of dollars range, not thousands.

A good trinocular stereo microscope will have a magnification of 20x-40x-60x-80x, zoom lenses, dual lighting system with fibre optic lights (no heat to cook your specimens), a boom stand so you can get bigger things under it and best of all, a third viewer with a built-in or attachable digital camera and USB, so you can take pictures and make videos of what you're looking at.

I've always wanted to be a Mad Scientist, or at least a Naturalist. But I'm going to have to save my pennies, because neither I nor anyone I know has the spare dosh for a toy like this.


pretty snazzy huh? Some day. And of course, you have to get all the cool stuff to go with it. Collecting jars and bottles, nets and things to poke and magnify with. Wonders!

One could make splendid micro-still lifes with one of these. Portraits of tiny, magical and mysterious things from another world, nearly invisible, but right under our feet.



Ingemar said...

If you have the nerve to settle for less, you could always find a used stereomicroscope on Ebay or something. Most likely it will be be a piece from the seventies without all the fancypants camera equipment.

I've come to the conclusion that for most people who want to work in biology, a B.Sc. is pretty pointless. (Disclaimer: I work in biotech and have a degree myself). If one is willing to do (not so) hard work like scrubbing glassware, using an autoclave, and pouring stacks of media, and learn as much as possible doing so, one could participate in the lab environment as a full fledged researcher.

At least in my ideal world.

In the Real World, one has to deal with HR departments that turn their collective noses away from someone without a degree in their resume.

I consider that a shame. Instead of young people immediately getting their feet wet, they spend four years in the academic wilderness learning something they can't use and imbibing left wing social engineering.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

In fact, I scoured the internet for jobs related to biological field work and a surprising number of them required no more than a high school diploma, the ability to write a sentence in English and a strong interest in nature. There are a lot of nature conservancy organisations in Britain and they all need people who are willing to spend eight months a year on an island counting puffins. I thought that would just be my dream job. Puffin-counter, me.