It was more than 300 years ago that Antoni van Leeuwenhoek gasped at the sight of what he called "little animalcules" skittering through pond water, their motion "so swift, and so various, upwards, downwards, and round about, that 'twas wonderful to see." The Dutch haberdasher had crafted some of the first microscopes, never expecting to spy bacteria, sperm cells, red blood cells and much more. Looking through his microscopes, some of which magnified the view 250 times or more, he was the first to observe barbs on a bee's stinger, mushroom-like fungi sprouting out of infected skin and bacteria that, he noted, "oft-times spun round like a top." An invisible, previously unimagined realm teeming with life appeared suddenly before his eyes, and his discoveries would forever change the way people viewed the world.
Inventors since then have improved the microscope in many ways, using purer glass and also adding mirrors and multiple lenses that boost the magnifying power of light microscopes up to about 1,500 times. (Electron microscopes, which bounce fast-moving electrons off specimens, are hundreds of times more powerful.) Two-eyed stereoscopic viewers pop microscopic beasties into three dimensions. Chemical fixatives can pin down reproducing cells in flagrante delicto. Particular angles or wavelengths of light illuminate features that are washed out by harsh, direct light, much as shadows cast by the evening sun can give a landscape photograph more depth. Fluorescent markers, which microscopists can attach to proteins within a cell, emit a technicolored glow when stimulated by the appropriate laser light; such "fluorophores" help biologists understand the role of a marked protein in a cell's motion, reproduction or death.
Lately, microscopy has been greatly enhanced by digital image processing. For microscopists as well as ordinary shutterbugs, digital photographs are quicker and cheaper to create than images made with film. They can also be easily manipulated on the computer to accentuate or analyze telling features.
Throughout its history, microscopy has served hard science: it has identified microbes responsible for diseases, revealed minerals that tell the story of a rock's geologic history or brought to light evidence used to convict criminals. But there's more to microscopy even than that, something subjective. Microscopists have always delighted in the surprising, amusing and often profoundly beautiful scenes under their lenses.
For 30 years, Nikon, the camera and optical equipment company, has hosted an annual photo contest for microscopists. Many of the entries are lovely. All are utterly unfamiliar: more eerie, more puzzling and more dramatic than a Surrealist painting or the priciest Hollywood special effects. The 2004 Small World Competition winners will be officially announced this month. The aim, says Michael W. Davidson, a molecular biophysicist at Florida State University at Tallahassee and a contest judge, is to reward both "technical proficiency on the microscope and an eye for art.' Some of this year's and past years' winning entries appear in these pages.
The contest judges, including Smithsonian photo editor Bonnie Stutski, had to choose the winners from among about 1,400 images. Enthusiasts who submit artwork to the contest come from all walks of life: Alzheimer's researchers, modern-day microbe hunters, a retired minister and basement tinkerers. A large number of entries come from graduate students or postdoctoral researchers, scientific apprentices who don't command their own laboratories yet and are known for their long, unremunerative hours in the lab. One imagines them parked at their desks late at night, staring through microscopes until the slides swirl in their eyes, then photographing these unique visions. When their photographs look just as beautiful in the light of the next day, they can take pleasure not just in their scientific labor but in creating art.