The MIT Museum is currently showcasing the exquisite beauty of the simple microscope, the portable single-lens instruments invented in the 17th century and made famous by naturalists such as Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, Carl Linnaeus and Charles Darwin.Â Titled "Singular Beauty," it is the first comprehensive exhibition of this instrument by an American museum. It runs through Sept. 16, 2007.
"The microscope is one of the iconic instruments of the life sciences. While a display of this type is of great interest to historians and collectors of scientific instruments, what is less obvious is how fascinating these instruments are to those on the cutting edge of microscopy research," said MIT Museum curator of science and technology Deborah Douglas, underscoring the value of displaying historical scientific instruments.
The exhibition features images from six MIT laboratories and displays 127 instruments from the rich collection of Raymond V. Giordano. Along with Douglas, Giordano co-curated the exhibition and authored the catalog. A noted appraiser of scientific instruments and books, Giordano has collected simple microscopes for 30 years.
"Besides its historical aspect, the simple microscope, in its many variations, is a pleasure to handle and study. Clearly instrument makers used their ingenuity to advance the field, and importantly, to gain a competitive edge. Today we can marvel at their accomplishments--optical, mechanical and aesthetic," Giordano said.
The exhibit, called "Singular Beauty," offers a variety of ingenious instruments. Examples range from one of the early simple microscopes of the type designed by the Dutch naturalist van Leeuwenhoek to the pocket instruments made by the American optical firm Bausch & Lomb. Most of the instruments are tiny, some less than an inch across, but even the largest can be easily carried. These elegant tools are made of wood, silver, brass, ivory, horn and glass. In addition to the microscopes, the exhibition includes reproductions of illustrations from historic scientific texts, catalogs, broadsheets and paintings.
A small display of images of contemporary microscopy at MIT is also on view in the gallery. This display was researched and co-curated by MIT student Iolanthe Chronis, Class of 2008, with the support of the MIT Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 13, 2006 (download PDF).