A century ago, photographic technology was limited to capturing experiences that matched - or, more commonly, were a poor replica for - our own senses. Today, we have technology that allows us to photograph much more than the naked eye can see. Scanning electron microscopes, which bombard their subjects with beams of electrons to produce incredibly detailed surface data, have unearthed complex cosmic narratives in the world right before (and on) our very eyes. But at price tags in the hundred thousands, this photographic technology is far from accessible. The upside to this is that microscopic photography remains fresh, exciting and totally mind-blowing for us common folk.
And frankly, we should enjoy it as much as possible. This could be a brief moment in history when microscopy still feels like magic. When magnified head lice can evoke the same feelings as the first time you watched Alien, when a super close-up of used dental floss will render you equal parts grossed out and fascinated. Someday, this technology could be so widely diffused that none of this will excite us anymore. Microscopic photography today is an art form much in the same way normal photography was a century ago: You just captured life, and it was beautiful. Today, a picture of Times Square isn’t art because it isn’t powerful. But head lice in high resolution still are… at least for now.
The universe is you. It’s in your hair. It’s on your fingers. It’s everywhere. Close your spreadsheets and your Facebook feeds for a moment and browse this brief gallery of unbelievable microscopic images.
12 Drop of Seawater
Henceforth your life will go in one of two directions: You will either never enjoy the beach again, or you will enjoy it exponentially more because you’re covered in millions of tiny animals all the time and that’s ok. This isn’t a prehistoric cave painting or a cartoonist’s attempt at abstract art. It's a photograph captured by National Geographic photographer David Liittschwager, of a single drop of seawater magnified just 25 times; a planktonic universe, and the best game of Where’s Waldo? you’ll ever play.
Can you spot all the bug-like copepods? Arrowworms? (Hint: long and clear) Cyanobacterial filaments? (Coils) Algae diatoms? (Rectangles) Fish eggs? Don't forget the lonely crab larva with bulgy eyes.
11 Human Eye
Close-ups of eyeballs remind us that they’re literally camera shutters made from organic tissue. The coloured iris controls light flow to the retina by regulating the diameter of the pupils. It may be one of the human body’s most stunning features from far away, but as you move closer, stunning turns to startling as the cratered alien landscape reveals itself.
The gorgeous geometry of snowflakes makes them a definitive microscopic subject. You can practically feel the 'mathemagical' order of the universe in these hexagonal sculptures that fall forever and never once repeat. Captured last year by Russian photographer Alexey Kljatov, these crystal-clear images are brought to you by a 2007 consumer-level point-and-shoot camera and some simple setup ingenuity.
9 Head Louse
Part crab, part scorpion, part sloth: at only 3 mm long this is what fully grown lice would look like if our eyes were 200 times stronger. It’s estimated that between 6 and 12 million hoards of these goonish critters set up camp on children’s heads every year in the US. This one took a moment to pose for the microscope, then probably went on to lay more eggs and climb more hair.
If this image looks oddly similar to beach shells, that’s because it basically is. Chalk is the product of marine phytoplankton that convert carbon dioxide and sunlight into calcium carbonate scales called coccoliths. Over eons, these microscopic skeletons pile up and fuse under pressure to form a sedimentary rock that happens to be ideal for writing on blackboards.
7 Tardigrade AKA Water Bear AKA Moss Piglets
Do a Google search on tardigrades and you’ll see every science blog in history abuzz with this awkward-looking thing, calling it things like the “toughest animal on the planet”. The moss piglet’s survival talents include: temperatures just above absolute zero to higher than water’s boiling point; pressures six times greater than the deepest ocean; radiation levels a hundred times the lethal dose for humans; and the vacuum of outer space.
Treading the line between living thing and unlike-any-living-thing, this .5 mm, eight-legged animal can somehow cope with just about everything that kills everything else, including no food or water for more than 10 years. If you want to find one, grab a microscope and track down your nearest tardigrade hangout. Patches of moss and lichen are safe bets.
6 Used Dental Floss
Seen above: A floss well done at 525x magnification, courtesy of the Science Photo Library. The pink substance is a film formed from saliva and bacterial secretions, also known as plaque. The bacteria in plaque eat your microscopic leftovers and excrete acid on your teeth which causes decay. Don’t panic: It’s just nature’s way of making sure you and your teeth don’t live forever. Circle of life and all that.
5 Chicken Embryo
That’s a tiny chicken. It’s so tiny it’s see-through. It hasn’t even developed real skin, let alone feathers. It’s just sittin’ in its egg, probably not thinking a thing. This 6x magnification taken with a stereomicroscope won the 1st place popular vote at Nikon’s Small World microscopic photography contest.
4 Demodex folliculorum a.k.a. Eyelash Mites
If you’re going to survive in a world where you can look really, really closely at things, you have to learn to accept that much of the detail is pretty disgusting. Most people - as in, you, - have eyelash mites living in and around your eyelash follicles. They eat your dead skin cells and drink your skin oils, and then they lay eggs inside your microscopic hair follicles. These ones here are burrowed in head first.
They have little claws and they can’t be stopped. Rubbing does nothing. Washing your eyes out does nothing. You can’t defeat them, and now you can’t unsee them.
3 Hooks and Loops Fastener (Velcro)
While it’s not hard to imagine how Velcro works, seeing it blown up at 22 million times reminds us just how simple the design is. The hooks could last virtually forever, but those poor loops are designed to get pretty roughed up over time. Invented by a Swiss engineer in the 1940s, their microscopic elegance has made them a staple across countless industries.
2 2. Toilet Paper
This image at 500x magnification shows the interwoven plant fibers that form all kinds of paper composites. Whether inscribing in ink or in anything else, tree cell geometry makes them ideal building blocks for absorption in just about any context. As far as manufacturing goes, there’s not much to toilet paper. You just have to separate tree fibers from wood, pound them out into sheets, and damage them slightly to render them more flexible and softer (a process called “creping”).
1 Cigarette Paper
The cigarette industry basically only has one job: Get nicotine into people’s systems. Considering its success is already guaranteed, we applaud it for refusing idleness while raking in enormous profits from the addicted masses. Case in point: in cigarettes, even the paper is tailored to perfect the experience of smoking. Those microscopic blue crystals embedded on that wooly paper surface are an additive that release oxygen and keep the butt burning longer.