The van Leeuwenhoek is in the Gallery Just Down the Hall . . .

by Jennifer Frazer on December 23, 2009

An Antony van Leeuwenhoek original: Portrait of the Ash Tree as a Young Cross Section.

When it has a Water Flea Circus, a Rotifer Room, and a Radiolaria Lounge you know this blogger is going to love it, and the Micropolitan Museum of Microscopic Art Forms is home to all these things. The website, proudly presented by the Institute for the Promotion of the Less Than One Millimetre, is the labor of love of Dutch artist Wim van Egmond.

If you just want the highlights, here’s a nice slide show by Wired Magazine.

Following in the steps (or perhaps slides) of his famous countryman and father of microbiology Antony van Leeuwenhoek, Wim has not only produced a great collection of microscopic photos, he’s got a great collection of microscopic photos in 3D, a technology sadly not available to the great microscopist. And as we know from our Avatar experience, everything’s better in 3D . . . .

You’ll need a cheap pair of red-blue glasses in order to experience the 3D. I highly recommend investing or procuring such, since there’s a lot of great 3D space images also getting tossed around the internet lately.

Antony (Antonie) van Leeuwenhoek (Lee-oo-ven-hoke Lay’-oon-hook — I think. Please correct me if I’m wrong, Jasper) is a guy you should know about if you read this blog. He was a Dutch cloth merchant who took up microscopy in the mid-1600s; met Peter the Great and may have known Johannes Vermeer (my favorite painter); and may have been the first human ever to see and draw microorganisms, which he called (delightfully) “animalcules”. He lived to be 90 — no small feat in the 17th century, and a reminder of how rugged humans can be even in the absence of antibiotics, toothpaste, text messages, etc., etc. He mastered a technique for making a small and optically excellent microscope that is essentially a melted bead of glass. It is so simple you can teach schoolchildren to make them in a few minutes, as protistologist Patrick Keeling has figured out how to do. Yet van Leeuwenhoek wanted to maintain his microbial monopoly so he could get the glory for his accomplishment (understandable but rather stifling to science, it must be said). So he seems to have let on like he spent hours in the kitchen grinding lenses to get his beautiful pictures. Hours. [Wipes dewy brow while letting out long-suffering sigh]

Above you see one of Van Leeuwenhoek’s actual drawings. It’s remarkably accurate (he certainly spent hours on that) and shows the cross section of a one-year old ash tree. The big holes are the vessel elements and the small holes are tracheids, the two chief cell types of wood (which is mostly xylem (zy’-lem)) in flowering plants. These cells move water and minerals when they are new, and once defunct, provide structural support. Thus, when you hold a piece of wood, you’re the holding the lignin and cellulose skeletons of tracheids and vessels.

You can see that early in the year, the tree made lots of big vessels for pumping water into swelling leaves, while later in the year the flow slowed. This annual variation in vessel/tracheid size is responsible for the growth rings you see in angiosperm (flowering) trees. Those big vessels are a flowering plant innovation that conifers lack, and may be partly responsible for their evolutionary success. It should also be said that vessel elements and tracheids are among the most beautiful (and abundant) tissue-class cells on the planet, thanks to their lignin-thickened decorations. See some more here and here and I believe in Fig. 1(?) in van Leeuwenhoek’s drawing above. Way cool!

Must get on top of getting a microscope. Must. Must.

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In the Tradition of Leeuwenhoek… « Antoni van Leeuwenhoek Centraal
December 30, 2009 at 5:59 pm

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