Through the Looking Glass

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This is a moss piglet. Yup, that's a real animal.

Cameras are nifty. They take a slice of the hustle and bustle of real life and dip it in liquid nitrogen, preserving it for eternity (or as long as our hard drives last). But they can’t do everything. Try taking a picture of the moon or the stars or a particularly lovely sunset. If you’re an amateur like me, you know that too often the image you see with your eyes doesn’t match the image you capture. It’s frustrating.

In May, I spent a week in a lab at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory with six other journalists. The goal was to learn something about biology. Our lab came equipped with some top-of-the-line microscopes that can snap images. So we made sea urchin babies and used the scopes to monitor their development.

Turns out, taking pictures of tiny things is fun. Like, really really fun. We became perfectionists. We stayed late into the night, drinking beer snapping baby urchins. In a mad attempt to capture the exact moment of fertilization, my labmate and I painstakingly dripped sperm onto dozens of slides full of eggs. It was wonderful.

But fancy-schmantzy lab microscopes equipped with high-resolution cameras are expensive and rare. One day, none of the high-end microscopes were free. So I put some of our urchin babies on a slide and stuck them in a simple bench-top light microscope. Then it dawned on me: Why not use my own point-and-shoot to photograph the slide? So I held the lens of my camera tight against one of the microscope eyepieces and clicked. Voila! Magic! A photo of a baby sea urchin’s pluteus stage.

That's not a space ship. It's a baby sea urchin.

Ok, so it’s not really magic. It’s mostly optics. Probably not even very complicated optics. But because physics is a foreign language to me, it seemed like magic. I don’t know why I always assumed that taking photographs this way wouldn’t work. Next, I snapped a moss piglet (top), the most adorable microscopic animal I’ve ever seen. Ok, maybe my pictures aren’t going to end up in a biology text book, but I am pleased with my low-tech solution. Very pleased.

Now, there’s no eyepiece through which I won’t snap a photo. A couple of weeks ago, I took my parents to Storm King, a sculpture garden just about an hour north of New York. On a hill, I stumbled across a pair of giant binoculars perched atop a pole (just like the ones they have on top of the Empire State Building). I whipped out my camera and captured this moment. Magic!

I spy with my little eye . . .

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There’s an excellent tutorial on how to take photos through a microscope here.

All images courtesy of Cassandra Willyard

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