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Why you need a microscope in your kitchen

Posted February 15

Meegan Kennedy was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to study how the microscope influenced science, culture and religion in the 19th century. (Deseret Photo)

When a Colorado Springs mom examined her breast milk under a microscope, she was so enthralled by what she saw that she posted it to Facebook, and the internet went wild with excitement.

More than 2 million people around the world have viewed Jansen Howard's video, which shows microscopic globules swirling in a single drop of breast milk.

"You guys... this is SO COOL! This is the living liquid gold we call breast milk in motion!" Howard wrote. "It's miraculous and it's ALIVE, tailored to my babies needs at this moment! Absolutely amazing!"

The video might inspire more mothers to nurse their babies — and more families to acquire a microscope of their own. While the magnifying instruments can cost from under a hundred dollars to $27 million, two scientists at Stanford University have invented a $1 foldable microscope that they hope every child will one day carry in their pockets like a pencil.

That's similar to the dream of microscope enthusiasts in Victorian England, who used to lobby for a "microscope in every kitchen," according to Meegan Kennedy, a professor at Florida State University and the recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities grant that is enabling her research on how the microscope influenced science, culture and religion in the 19th century.

Faith and science often seem like opponents, but Kennedy has found that some people in the 19th century saw the microscope and its revelations as God-given.

A 'window into the sublime'

Kennedy became interested in microscopes when she studied centuries-old medical books as an undergraduate and noticed “some interesting language” about the microscope.

“You quite frequently find the microscope being described as a window into the sublime, into infinity; an exquisite mechanism that gives you access into God’s creation,” she said in an interview.

For example, in 1852, a man named Thomas Dick wrote a book called "The Telescope and the Microscope" that urged Christians to use the emergent technology to observe objects such as a beetle's claw, a lobster's eye and dust on a butterfly wing. Doing so would help them recognize the immense power of God, he wrote.

The book became as much a tool of apologists as a discourse on microscopy, and was, in fact, distributed by a religious tract society, Kennedy said.

"Every part of creation demands our attention and proclaims the power and wisdom of the Creator," Dick wrote, later adding, "How dreadful it must be to die at enmity with so great a Being!"

He also wrote, "It seems almost trite and needless to say that the discoveries which we have been considering equally with those of the telescope, demonstrate the existence of God and teach us lessons of confidence in him, by showing us that there is nothing too minute for his notice or too humble for his care."

By 1830, cheap and reliable microscopes were sold at spectacle shops, and when, a decade or so later, people became worried about contaminated food, women were encouraged to buy a microscope for their kitchen, so they could inspect the food for themselves. One sales pitch was that a microscope would be as useful to a sighted housekeeper as a pair of eyes would be to a blind one, Kennedy learned while researching her forthcoming book, “Beautiful Mechanism: The Bounds of Wonder in the Victorian Microscope.”

While “a microscope in every kitchen” never caught on, the advent of “penny microscopes” — tiny magnifiers that used a hardened drop of balsam sap as a lens — made inspecting random objects up close a popular pastime, and microscopes even became a part of parlor games in Victorian England, she said. They also served as a form of public entertainment.

Showmen would collect dirty ditch water from London and use a projection microscope to display the images of microscopic life on a large screen. It looked like a horror show, Kennedy said, and the audiences were astounded and horrified.

“It triggered water panics over the course of the century and encouraged some of the public health water reforms in the middle of the century,” she said. “We can also look at this as a precursor of the cinematic audience because these audiences were sitting in a darkened room and watching these wriggling, lively, actually alive ‘actors’ on the screen.”

Inflation has made the latest iteration of a penny microscope cost a dollar, but the Foldscope, a tool of the "frugal science" movement, promises to make science accessible even in impoverished nations.

As science writer Ed Yong explained in The Atlantic, the Foldscope "comes as a single sheet of thick paper: you snap out the components, fold them origami-style, and thread them together. Ten minutes later, you have a device that weighs 9 grams, fits in a pocket, holds regular microscope slides, and can magnify their contents more than 2,000 times using a small built-in lens. That’s good enough to visualize everything from a ladybug’s claws to a colony of bacteria."

And it's so easy to use, Yong wrote, that when a group of Mexican schoolchildren who didn't speak English were given a Foldscope, "the kids just ignored the instructions and put together the microscope on their own. Then, they started looking at anything they could get their hands on."

Droplets of health

The Colorado mother who put her breast-milk video on Facebook told The Huffington Post that her father is a microscopist, and the family had been looking at magnified blood to inspect the white-cell count of her mother, who has cancer. That's when she had the idea to put a drop of her breast milk under the slide.

Howard's 11-month-old daughter was sick at the time, and she had heard that the composition of breast milk changes to meet the baby's needs at the moment, and she was curious as to how it would appear when her daughter wasn't feeling well.

It wasn't the first time that magnified images of breast milk have attracted attention on the internet. Other women have posted comparisons of breast milk, cow's milk and formula in recent years.

And milk is not the only substance of interest to families. The internet is rife with suggestions about what every child should see under a microscope, including Marci Goodwin's list at Thehomeschoolscientist.com, which includes mold, hair, salt, sugar and cheek cells.

And a grandmother who writes a blog called "Yay-Yay's Kitchen" has an ongoing feature in which she shares microscope images of food products that include honey and sourdough starter.

Manu Prakash, a Stanford professor and co-inventor of the Foldscope, said in Vox last year that he hopes the inexpensive device will get more people interested in science.

"I know so many biologists, including myself, who had a start by just looking under a microscope, and there is a sense of wonder that you can't place," he told Brian Resnick of Vox.

The future of microscopy includes using your cellphone as a microscope, with lenses that temporarily attach to the phone and magnify objects up to 100 times their size. There's also a new app that allows men to magnify their sperm so they can check for quality and mobility when they're trying to conceive.

But low-tech microscopy also works great, too, Kennedy said, pointing out that a build-it-yourself microscope, made with a matchbox, plastic wrap and a dab of Vaseline, may be all it takes to ignite a love for science in the youngest members of your family.

EMAIL: jgraham@deseretnews.com

TWITTER: @grahamtoday

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