I have a background in science and engineering but mainly on the maths, physics and
electronics side. While I still enjoy tinkering with electronics, I had been looking
for another hobby that was science orientated, with a good practical element and
wasn’t going to break the bank. I recently took up microscopy and I am finding it
absolutely fascinating, these web pages document my journey into this amazing hobby.
So why microscopy?
In truth my first port of call for a new hobby was actually astronomy, I think it
is one of those subjects that sums up man’s desire to find out where we came from
and where we sit in the grand scheme of things. However, after doing some research
on the Internet and reading some books and magazines, my initial enthusiasm for astronomy
was tempered somewhat by the practical and financial limitations. The following sections
explain my reasoning for choosing microscopy over astronomy. This is not to say one
hobby is better than another, it is just me being realistic about what I would get
out of the hobby on my budget (approx 400 Euro).
Lets be honest, if you’ve got to a stage where you are looking to invest some money
in a new hobby, you are probably harbouring some ideas of what you will be able to
do or see with your new kit. Your appetite will have probably been whetted by images
and articles on the net and in glossy magazines. The images I found from light microscopes
seemed to be a very much in the vein of ‘what you see is what you get’. Very nice
pictures by hobbyists and some professionals were often taken using nothing more
than a compact camera held to the eyepiece. I found the images below on amazon.co.uk,
submitted by someone who had bought the Apex Practioner microscope. The Practioner
is a budget biological microscope costing around 120 Euros (Sept 2013).
Head Louse Trachea 400x House Fly
Mouth Hairs 400x
Images from Practioner microscope taken with a compact digital camera held
to the eyepiece.
For astro-images on the other hand, the list of equipment and post-processing was
altogether much longer and more complex. Perhaps more worryingly, it appeared that
many astro-images could only be seen by using expensive photographic equipment and
lots of post-processing. The same objects viewed directly though a budget amateur
telescope would probably just appear as rather un-impressive, fuzzy blobs. One amateur
astronomy site I found had a section on buying your first telescope. It more or less
said, ‘prepare to be under-whelmed’ (see actual text below), which was a bit of an
eye opener for a site promoting the hobby, but refreshingly honest.
Quote from www.my-spot.com
“The views through your telescope simply will NOT match what you see in astrophotos
in magazines or even on the box of your scope. Period! First, you will not see nebulae
in color, planets will look tinier than you expect and will lack most of the color
and contrast you see in books and magazines. Most people that look through a telescope
for the first time are somewhat disappointed about what they see, or what they don't
see. Don't get me wrong, you will never forget the first time you see Saturn or the
Moon in a telescope and the "Wow!" that escapes your lips will amaze you also, but
the "faint fuzzy" stuff often disappoints first time viewers.”
There are good physical reasons why it is easier to obtain images from microscopes
than telescopes. Ultimately it comes down to the fact that with a microscope you
can control the amount of light available to form the image. With a telescope the
light available is fixed; if you want to capture more of it you need more sensitive
equipment and/or a bigger telescope. Needless to say, manufacturing bright light
sources for microscopes is significantly less costly than producing high-sensitivity
cameras and large optical components for telescopes.
Things to look at:
Whatever route you choose there is obviously the question of ‘what is there to look
at?’. Whether astronomy or microscopy the answer is ‘an almost limitless number of
things’. With a budget light microscope you can see things as small as bacteria and
larger cell components (e.g. Nucleus, Chloroplasts and Chromoplasts), for viruses
you need an electron microscope which is a bit beyond the reach of the hobbyist.
Of course you can take a close-up view of anything on the planet that is bigger than
bacteria, and that’s quite a lot of things! With a budget telescope it seems you
would get a good view of the moon and be able to make out the larger planets and
some galaxies. Realistically however, the vast majority of things you’ll see with
a budget telescope will be stars, the same small points of light you can see with
your naked eye, just more of them.
Finding the time:
The other issue was finding the time for another hobby. Although I do have a reasonable
amount of time to pursue hobbies, it does tend to be at odd times of the day, I certainly
can’t guarantee to have lots of evenings free. Combined with the vagaries of the
weather, light pollution and the time required to set up, I could see a telescope
just looking pretty in the corner of the living room, like so many others I’ve seen..
A microscope by contrast, after the initial setup, just requires switching on and
you are ready to go, whatever the time, whatever the weather.
Taking the plunge:
What finally made me decide to buy a microscope was finding the online magazine Microbehunter.com,
a free to download magazine edited and written by enthusiastic microscopists for
other enthusiasts. It really seemed to embrace the true sentiment of a hobby, I was
amazed to see what could be achieved with fairly modest equipment and some inventiveness.
The microscope I bought was an Apex Scholar trinocular, shown in the picture below.
The reasoning behind choosing this particular microscope I will cover at some point
in a ‘buying the microscope page’. For good general advice there is an excellent
beginner’s guide on the Microbehunter.com website
Apex Scholar trinocular microscope
After using my microscope for some 6 months I can honestly say that it is everything
I hoped it would be and more. I think if you already have an absorbing interest in
an area and want to take it further just go with it, your enthusiasm will make up
for any limitations imposed by your time and budget. If you are un-decided and have
a limited budget I can thoroughly recommend microscopy as a hobby. If like me this
has led you to wonder why it is not more popular as a hobby, I put together a little
article titled “What happen to microscopy as a hobby?” to explore some possible reasons.
The document is in .pdf format and includes some useful links and references if
you decide to have go yourself. It