One Non-Techie’s Adventures in Digital Microscopy

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One Christmas, in a moment of perfect parental insight, my mother got me a Madame Alexander doll, a copy of The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and a microscope. I know–it sounds like one of those standardized test questions: Which of these three is not the same–but there you go. It was a perfect Christmas. And while I ended up becoming both a mother and an avid reader (and writer!) I did not follow the trail of the microscope into the science field.

I blame it on the microscope itself, frankly. It was hard to use. Especially for seven year old hands. You had to get the light just right, and tilt the mirror at precisely the correct angle. Then there was the slide preparation! Holy cow! The super thin slide covers broke so easily. Okay, so part of it may have been my fault in that I’m not the most manually dexterous of people, but still…

So imagine my surprise–and delight–when passing my husband’s desk a few weeks ago and seeing a huge picture of some metal scoring on his computer screen–and it was moving! Lo and behold, he was looking at it through an instrument he held in his hand: a digital microscope. Dear Reader, I was hooked. And my husband, being the saint that he is, gave it over to me for the next few weeks.

The digital microscope he’d purchased was made by Celestron and he found it on Amazon for $60. As he said, “How could I NOT buy it?” [Note: Which explains an awful lot about our family budget, come to think of it.] The Celestron 44302 is a handheld digital microscope that comes with 10x, 40x, & 150x digital magnification power. It connects via USB 2.0 cable and comes equipped with an LED illuminator and digital camera for snapshots and video. It also claims to be compatible with both PCs and Macs.

When I had first seen it, it was plugged into my husband’s PC laptop and worked beautifully. The next trick was to get it to work on my iMac. And while it is true that the microscope is PC and Mac compatible, it does not come with software for Macs. Mac users are on their own with whatever video chat and/or imaging software they have on hand.For my first attempts, I used the video preview function on iChat and was not impressed. Here are three pictures I took and you can see the poor quality.

I was irked, but before giving up I read through the Amazon reviews and found this link to the highly satisfactory ImageJ software, public domain imaging software available from the NIH. Once I had that installed, I was ready to try again–this time with great success.

Now that I had the software figured out, I got to work. Luckily, while my kids are older now, we still have a number of scientific treasures around the house from when they were more active specimen collectors.

You’ll notice that a number of the things you can look at with a digital microscope wouldn’t work under the older microscopes. That’s because the specimen doesn’t have to be translucent. In fact, that is one of this digital microscope’s huge pros: it acts as more of a hyper-magnifier and can therefore be used on all sorts of things.

Which, sadly, brings me to one of its cons: I would have to say that this particular microscope did fairly poorly at its higher magnification power. After working with it for hours, these were the highest magnifications I could achieve, and those were highly awkward and wobbly. (Yes, that’s a technical term. ) You had to mush the specimen up close to the lens and wiggle it around, hoping some part of it would come into focus. But there is a plastic ring/protector thing around the lens so that many times you couldn’t get the specimen close enough to take advantage of the higher magnifications. Here are some side by side comparisons of the larger magnifications we tried to get.

I could never get a satisfactory close up of this rock. The microscope would focus (more or less) on one spot and magnify that, but not very satisfyingly.

This higher magnification on the whale bone was a little more acceptable, although you were still at the whims of what piece of the specimen fit inside the plastic guard ring.

Another drawback was that you weren’t able to know precisely which magnification level you were using. Here is a picture of the reptile jaw next to a ball point pen for comparison, and then at a higher magnification of where the teeth met the jaw.

The snakeskin was probably one the more satisfying close ups, but the magnification wasn’t THAT much better at the higher setting. And I’m not convinced ANY of them came close to the 150X magnification that was reported with the instrument.

The good news is, there are lots of other microscopes out there–most cost more–but that will have a more sophisticated ability to utilize these higher magnifications.  A couple of other GeekMoms have digital microscopes and have been very happy with them. Jenny Williams also has a Celestron but, the Deluxe LCD versionKathy Ceceri was written up by the NYT for her adventures with digital microscopes, You can read more about her thoughts on her Digital Blue QX5 Digital Microscope here.

In case you’re scratching your head, wondering what, exactly, you could do with such a techno-gadget, here are some ideas for things to look at with a digital microscope:

salt crystals, piece of ice
teeth: puppy, kitten, or human
cross section of celery stalk, also slices of apple, potato other foods with interesting textures
cross section of celery stalk that has soaked up some food color
cocoon, larvae, or pupa
rocks: obsidian vs sandstone, quartz
variety of soil samples
electronic circuits, print cartridge head, old hard drive, something that has been inkjet printed
fungi: underside of mushrooms, mold on bread or cheese
rolly bug, moth eggs, section of cobweb
peeling skin or a scab
variety of seeds
the parts of a plant: stamen, pistol, pollen

And lest that not convince you, here are Six Practical Uses for a Digital Microscope

  1. Check to see if you have split ends.
  2. Check to see if that brown spot is a freckle, age spot, or possible carcinoma. (This generated two doctors visits in my household.)
  3. Find and remove a teeny tiny splinter.
  4. Check to see if that’s a piece of lint in your child’s hair or a nit.
  5. See how a cut is healing. (This is especially fun as you can take pictures so the child can see a comparative sequence.)
  6. Check if that is a piece of corn grit or moth larvae in the old box of corn meal in the pantry.

Overall, I’d highly recommend a digital microscope to any household, especially one with kids. I’m sure you (and they!) will dream up all sorts of adventures in microscopy!

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The GeekMom blog is captained by Jenny Bristol and Corrina Lawson, and supported by a brilliant team of writers. Since launching in 2010, we’ve created a robust community of writers, readers, and media geeks, dedicated to the vision of creating a smart, savvy, social online experience for geek parents everywhere.