Small Wonder

September 01, 2017

"Flea" in Robert Hooke's Micrographia

In 1665, the year before the Great Fire in London, the polymath Robert Hooke published a scientific treatise that created a sensation.  Entitled Micrographia, the work introduced readers to a whole new world that became visible through a new-fangled device called a microscope.  Hook’s discoveries were accompanied by his own exquisitely detailed – and expertly rendered -- copperplate engravings of objects too small to be seen with the naked eye: the cellular structure of cork, a monstrous hairy-legged flea, an ant enlarged enough to send picnickers fleeing in terror. “By the help of microscopes,” Hooke proclaimed, “there is nothing so small, as to escape our inquiry; hence there is a new visible world discovered to the understanding.”  He went on to say that “we now behold almost as great a variety of Creatures, as we were able before to reckon up in the Whole Universe itself.”

Like most other sighted creatures, human beings are engineered to see clearly enough at close range to catch their prey and far enough to spot predators before they themselves become prey.  The invention of lens-based magnification devices in the sixteenth century vastly increased their ability to see in either direction.  Telescopes opened up the heavens, but initially they did not so much alter our understanding of the stars as add vastly to the number that were now visible.  Microscopes, by contrast, opened up a universe of small things that had existed undetected until then.  Hooke’s contemporary Anton van Leeuwenhoek, a Dutch draper and amateur scientist, perfected the compound microscope and discovered the existence of bacteria, blood corpuscles in capillaries and the teeming life in a drop of water.

Cameras are lens-based devices that mostly work at middle distances.  But they can also be outfitted with telescopic lenses to shoot distant objects or be attached to microscopes to capture the sorts of things Hooke was only able to record on copper plates.  I rarely use telephoto lenses for my landscape work, for the most part only when physically prevented from getting as close to my subject as I might otherwise wish.  On the other hand, I sometimes like to use macro extension tubes to focus more closely on a subject and with greater magnification than would be possible with a lens alone.  This spring, for example, I screwed macro extension tubes onto my lens to photograph dramatic closeups of the pink and white blossoms on the crabapple trees in my front yard.  A delicate litle flower no larger than a quarter now filled the entire frame of an image taken just a few inches from ts subject, and it was no longer possible to ignore its demure splendor.

What is most striking about the world as seen in extreme closeup is the attention to detail.  Hooke’s iconic flea, blown up to the size of a gatefold illustration in Micrographia, is revealed to be a kind of armadillo on stilts, its body, legs and snout bristling with whiskers, each one carefully rendered. How many hours did Hooke spend hunched over his microscope, painstakingly recording by hand everything he had seen?  And who originally lavished such detail on a creature smaller than a grain of rice?  If you examined one of my digital photographs under a microscope, you would find it be nothing more than a pattern of dots.  But if you examined any of God’s smallest creatures under a microscope, you would find it fully formed down to the last detail.  If you examined a microcrobe in the intestinal tract of a flea using an electron microscope, there would still be no stinting on detail.  So if you were looking here for evidence of God’s handiwork in creation, what might you find?  You could only conclude that God is indeed in the details.