On this day, 13 April, back in 1625, Giovanni Faber (also known as Johannes Faber) first suggested the word ‘microscope’ for an enlargement viewing device developed by Galileo Galilei in order to see tiny objects that are too small for the naked eye (Galilei himself called it an ‘occhiolino’ or ‘little eye’). Faber used the term in a letter to Federigo Cesi, founder of the Accademia dei Lincei (Academy of the Lynx) in Italy, one of the earliest academies of science.
Once the term ‘microscope’ became accepted, this also resulted in the coining of the term ‘microscopy’ for the science of investigating tiny objects through a microscope. The term ‘microscopic’ is used for something that is too small to see unless viewed through a microscope.
The microscope is another of those devices that is synonymous with science – it is impossible to imagine a scientific lab, and science in general, without microscopes. From the first optical microscopes (still in use), further developments and technological innovations led to the development of more powerful microscopes including the electron microscope (using electrons rather than light to generate an image) and scanning probe microscopes such as the atomic force microscope (AFM).
The AFM is an extremely high resolution device that can achieve a resolution of the order of fractions of a nanometer. The increased resolution achieved by this device opened up amazing new research possibilities in the nanosciences. To acknowledge this, the developers of the AFM, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer of IBM Research, were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1986.
While only a very select few of us will ever have the opportunity to see one of these incredible pieces of scientific equipment, let alone experience using it, I am sure many out there remember the magical world that opened up when you got your first hobby microscope. I certainly remember the wonder of first getting to use a little microscope handed down to me by my dad – it was old and worn and not fancy at all, but man, was it amazing to look at anything and everything, from a fly’s wing to a drop of blood.
Did you have a microscope when you grew up?