Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The family microscope

Ostracada, NOAA archives

Children gravitate to puddles.

Children see things before they are taught they do not exist. With enough education, they learn to avoid puddles. They no longer waste time staring at the edge of a pond.

If you hold a handful of pond water, you might not see anything at first. Look a little harder. Look for movement. It's there.

In the 17th century, Antony van Leeuwenhoek made microscopes. Invented them, really. He saw things no one saw before.

I then most always saw, with great wonder, that in the said matter there were many very little living animalcules, very prettily a-moving. The biggest sort... had a very strong and swift motion, and shot through the water (or spittle) like a pike does through the water. The second sort...oft-times spun round like a top...and these were far more in number.

Antony van Leeuwenhoek, in report to the Royal Society
Our family microscope is a teaching scope--it has eyepiece tubes--so my kids and I can look at another world together. When one wanders away from one's usual world, it's good to have company.

One June afternoon my daughter and I stared into the same world together.

We saw a critter peek from under a duckweed leaf, which saw an even tinier critter, and munched on it. The sated critter than skitted around energetically, as though gleeful.

I am, of course, anthropomorphizing....but "gleeful" is the right word. We can reduce it to the transfer of energy from one critter to another, but the subsequent burst of energy gave me a burst of energy--glee is contagious.

Turns out the critter was an ostracod. I never saw an ostracod before. I never thought about them when I used pond water to feed the garden. I knew that pond water made my tomatoes grow better. I just never wondered why.

Watering my plants with pond water is harder now.

I cannot imagine the wonder coursing through Leeuwenhoek's veins, but I know what I felt as I sat with my eldest on the stoop, seeing critters we never imagined. We did not know they were ostracods yet. We did not know much about them at all. We knew this much, though--they got excited when they found something good to eat.

We could see them munch on something else, then could see the "something else" in their bellies. Voyeurs, we were.

I wandered to the web to learn a little more about my gleeful creatures.

Ostracods eat. Boy ostracods attract girl ostracods by using flashing lights. Ostracods have baby ostracods.

So this year I want to introduce microscopes to my class with less pedantry and more wonder. Maybe I'll can the classic "Letter 'e' Lab" for a period or two of just staring into pond water.

I want to make my students witnesses of worlds they cannot even imagine.

This is the world we live in.

I seek light, warmth, food, and love. So do animalcules.

Yearning. Lust. Desire. In long light of summer, it makes sense. I hope it still makes sense when reduced to something digestible in a February morning lesson.

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