Through the looking glass

Steve Archer and I recently reached out to fellow senior research scientist David Fields, whose work often involves larger (however, still quite small) organisms called copepods. Fields briefly showed me how to use one of his many microscopes–something I haven’t done since perhaps early high school. For instructional purposes, Fields introduced me to a specific species of copepod (the name of which escapes me) that you might have noticed while looking at a tide pool for example. They’re tiny flee like translucent creatures, although visible with a patient naked eye, seem to spring around madly under view of a microscope.

Simply and concisely put, I forgot how entrancing it is to look at something–anything–under a microscope. I suppose it is the voyeur in me that is so intrigued and captivated by the ability to look upon a microcosm of life in such a seemingly discrete and private way. They are after all, just bouncing around, eating, disposing of waste and mating…and who would have thought the life of a copepod could be so relatable?

After Fields’ quick demonstration I was off to explore freely the microscope and whatever I desired to place under its magic lens. Having recently collected a number of dried coralline algae specimens those were looked at first, then a small microscopically etched piece of copper and lastly some random objects lying around Fields lab (yes, I also tried putting my finger underneath it). Fields has a Canon T3i attached to the top of the microscope so everything of consuming interest was documented. Those photos can be viewed below.

The goal was ultimately to familiarize myself with using a microscope, and spend several hours immersed “through the looking glass”–a process that anyone in a field requiring microscopy can relate to. It seems a considerable portion of time at Bigelow (and I’m sure this is the case for many researchers disciplined in numerous sciences) is spent looking inward, or through, in order to understand something larger or greater than that which you observe in that moment of introspection. The building itself is made largely of massive glass windows, all of which can be looked through as one walks down any one of the three wings that Bigelow is made up of. The architects designed each wing so that as one does so, through gradually expanding parallel walls, ceiling and floor, our brains use of perspective is compromised and we are left perspective-less as we walk towards the large windows at the ends of each wing. These windows frame the more infinite landscape of the Damariscotta estuary. This architectural phenomenon, similar to the experience of looking through a microscope, reminds one of the greater spatial context that lies outside the building, and beyond that, of the biosphere. As much of a struggle as it may be to extrapolate in such a way, a lot of the research that I’ve been surrounded by here at BLOS, though looking at microbial life forms aims to understand an infinitely larger picture of exchange and interaction between land, ocean and atmosphere.

I have related this scientific discipline–which I will, probably poorly and vaguely, call biogeochemistry–to my experiences with sensory deprivation tanks. I confine myself to a vessel only slightly larger than my body, deprived of the usual sensory cacophony of reality. Within a certain length of time(1.5-2hrs) this process facilitates a sort of hyper-awareness of self both physically and mentally. Through this introspection, I have found I am able to understand clearer, reflect upon and imagine myself in the greater context of reality as I know it outside that bodily vessel. It becomes a way of not just understanding myself but the people around me, my environment, my art, space, perception and so on. It’s a very circular form of research/contemplation/reflection. That is, diving down in order to come up, or rather looking ahead to see from behind (and above?).

This type of thinking is of course ancient…but for science, biogeochemistry within the timeline of human history is fairly new. As Archer says, we are barely beginning to understand the complexities of just gas exchange between life on land and water, and the atmosphere (perhaps the most widely and commonly known exchange being the water cycle). The biosphere is an interconnected and convoluted net. The reality I am discovering is that ecosystems do not operate in the linear hierarchical fashion that we like to prescribe to every system and infrastructure we’ve created. The consequences of one species actions upon their environment and those surrounding it ripple perpetually, no matter how large or small that species may be.

I’m sure you can imagine where we could go from that statement onward…but it’s Earth Day, so rather than tell you what you hopefully already know (and trust what almost 100% of the science community around the globe agrees upon), I will instead say to you, go outside connect with and embrace nature for all its beauty and power–and do so kindly and respectfully.

When you return to your cyber world, check out the images below of my time spent looking in–or is it out?

7 6 5 4 3 2 1

8 9




17 16


Through the looking glass