The Biggest Microscope in the World

and it is focused on your toilet seat…

My grandmother, Barbara, often talked about growing up in a bedroom that was an observatory. She also, in her telling, sat on Faulkner’s front lawn and listened to him tell stories and swam in a small pond with her siblings while a man with one arm stood guard, shotgun in that one good arm in case he had to shoot a water moccasin. Most of these stories have, amazingly, proven to be true, but the one I could never make sense of was the idea that she grew up sleeping in an observatory, an observatory she claimed was to be found at the University of Mississippi. I loved the idea of my grandmother sleeping beneath a giant telescope pointing up at the universe, but it seemed, well, ridiculous. It might have been ridiculous but, as it turns out, it was also true.

The story begins prior to the Civil War when Frederick A.P. Barnard was the chancellor of the University of Mississippi. Barnard wanted to make the university the greatest institution of scientific research in the United States and he thought that this required one very important thing, the biggest telescope in the world and so Barnard went about commissioning such a telescope. The building was built, a grand observatory, into which the telescope would be placed. The giant lens was made. The body of the telescope was also made. Everything was ready and just needed to be shipped from Chicago to Oxford, Mississippi. Then the Civil War began and with it the willingness of folks in Chicago to send the world’s biggest telescope to Mississippi diminished, precipitously. The telescope was sold instead to the University of Chicago (where it would be used to make big discoveries). Barnard left for New York (where he would found what would become Barnard College). And the observatory acquired a series of new uses, one of which would ultimately be housing the chancellor and his family, including my grandmother who slept beneath the place where there might have been but was not a lens through which she could have seen the sky.

Barnard Observatory as seen in March 1975. Image credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, MISS,36-OXFO,12-1

Barnard Observatory as seen in March 1975. Image credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, MISS,36-OXFO,12-1

I introduce this story because it is a reminder of what is obvious in the history of astronomy, that what allows us or fails to allow us to see what is too distant or small is very often a simple lens, a lens that magnifies. A bigger or better lens can (or at least could) allow one to see ever more. Most folks have an intuitive sense of these realities, but the studies of the faraway stars and, particularly, nearby microbes have changed; they have changed in such a way as to stump our intuition. But that is not because, at least I don’t think, our approaches are so much more complex. They are just more diminutively physical, AKA, smaller. And so if we once imagined a little girl sleeping beneath a telescope, or with her eye pressed up to a microscope, we might now imagine the same little girl studying genes, genes whose decoding also reveals an image. But because very few people seem to understand how looking at these genes allows us to see, I invited Dan Fergus, a researcher at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, to walk us through the process. What follows is Dan’s description of the new lens through which we see what is around us. I asked Dan to write, in particular, about how we see what lives in the houses or on the bodies of people, be they children, or older children (AKA adults).

Perhaps, Dan’s introduction will inspire a girl to, in two generations, tell her grandchildren that she grew up in a room in which the ceiling and everything else shimmered with life, the life that we can now make, in a way, visible, not through lens but instead through, well, I’ll let Dan tell you — Read on…

Researcher Dan Fergus pipettes a DNA sample at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Photo (C) Paige Brown.

Researcher Dan Fergus pipettes a DNA sample at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Photo (C) Paige Brown.

By |2016-11-22T13:47:19-05:00September 13th, 2013|

About the Author:

Rob Dunn
Rob Dunn is a biologist and writer in the Department of Applied Ecology at North Carolina State University. Central to all of his work is the sense that big discoveries lurk not only in faraway tropical forests, but also in our backyards and even bedrooms. The unknown is large and wonderful and Dunn and his collaborators, students, and postdocs love to spend their days in it.

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