C.S. Lewis on Microscopy

C.S. Lewis helped train me on the fluorescence microscope last week.
No, really, he did!

My lab manager explained many of the functions and buttons and knobs on the microscope, teaching me how to reveal the hidden glowing bits inside a cell. I rarely ask questions, but I was curious enough about “dark field” microscopy to inquire.

Bright field (left) and dark field (right) images of human tissue. From Paralkar et al. "Cloning and Characterization of a Novel Member of the Transforming Growth Factor-β/Bone Morphogenetic Protein Family." Jour Bio Chem. 1998;273:13760-7.

He explained: “Do you know what Venetian blinds are? You know how, on a sunny day, you can see bits of dust illuminated in the ray of sunlight from the blinds, but they disappear when the lights are on? That’s how dark field microscopy works. The direct light falls out of the range of the objective, so the objective only sees light scattered from objects on the slide. The technique allows you to see some pieces that are invisible in bright field microscopy. Does that make any sense?”

Yes, in fact, it did. And I smiled because this idea about microscopy threw me back to an old English literature professor who once stood in a toolshed:

I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.
Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, ninety-odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.
– C.S. Lewis, Meditations on a Toolshed
(I first encountered this in Ward’s Planet Narnia.)

Lewis said that we could think about most things two ways: contemplating them directly (looking at the beam), or enjoying them (looking along the beam). We profit from considering both viewpoints, whether in life or science.
So, that’s how I learned how to use a microscope from C.S. Lewis.

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1 Comment

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One response to “C.S. Lewis on Microscopy

  1. Greg

    I liked this. 🙂

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