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Science Gifts: Microscopes

Well, in that post on telescopes I put up the other day, there were plenty of manufacturers, web sites, and commercial sources that I could recommend. Microscopes, though, are another matter. There’s no equivalent to the amateur telescope making/modifying community. One reason for that is that we’re talking about lenses for magnification, rather than big mirrors for light-gathering, and mirrors are a lot easier to make (and test) than lenses, particularly combinations of lenses. Microscopes can also have more mechanical parts than telescopes do, and these parts are less modular, which can make the used equipment market rather tricky. The new equipment market tends to divide into “Wonderful, really expensive equipment for research” and “Cheap crap”. (More thoughts on the similarities and differences between the amateur astronomers and microscopists here and here).
But not always. Here’s a good site with a lot of buying advice, and here are more good sets of recommendations. You’ll have heard of the brands of the most common laboratory microscopes (Nikon, Olympus, Leica, Zeiss), and there are a number of lesser-known brands, which I would assume all use Chinese optics (Omano, Motic, Accuscope, Labomed). The advice, as with telescopes is to Avoid Department Store Models, but beyond that, I’m not sure where to send people. Reputable dealers seem to include Lab Essentials and Microscope Depot, but be sure to read up on those recommendations before purchasing. An older microscope in good shape probably has the best price/performance of all, but that’s not a casual purchase, for the most part. For what it’s worth, I use an old “grey metal” Bausch and Lomb, purchased back in the 1970s used from around the University of Tennessee medical school.
Update: as those recommendation links say, there are two big choices: a stereo microscope or a compound one. The former is good for looking at whatever (larger) object you can put under it, while the latter is higher-magnification and needs, in most cases, to have something that light can pass through. I’m partial to protozoa and algae myself, so I have the latter, but the former is a very useful instrument, too. A great general reference for someone getting into microscopy is Exploring With the Microscope.
If you’re into pond life as well, two excellent references are How to Know the Protozoa and How to Know the Freshwater Algae. I own both, but then, I’m a lunatic, so keep that in mind.

9 comments on “Science Gifts: Microscopes”

  1. johnnyboy says:

    As a gift for hobbyists and youngsters, I would recommend a stereoscope rather than a microscope. The latter requires mounted thin sections in order to look at things, and so you’re limited to whatever slides are on offer commercially, which I imagine is pretty limited, and probably costly. WIth a stereoscope however, you can shove pretty much anything you find on the plate and get a nice view – not as magnified as with a microscope, but still quite interesting and surprising, and which retains the 3D characteristics. A heck of a lot cheaper too I would think.

  2. Wile E. Coyote says:

    EBay is a great place to get “inexpensive” microscopes (and parts, bulbs, double heads, lenses, etc). Quite a few Olympus BH-2 models (compound model) out there, for example. Also lots of stereoscopes listed. As with anything on EBay, buyer beware for scratched lenses, etc.

  3. Pig Farmer says:

    The digital microscopes from Celestron are quite good value for money. I use one at work (model 44345) for looking at crystal shapes/sizes of plant batches. It is easy to copy pictures/videos from the microscope to the PC, and the quality of pictures when printed is pretty good. It’s available for less than $300. There does seem to be some trouble with quality control, however: there are a number of poor reviews on Amazon related to the item not working or breaking down shortly after arrival. The one I am using has been working well for nearly a year.

  4. Imaging guy says:

    The sentence “One reason for that is that we’re talking about lenses for magnification, rather than big mirrors for light-gathering” is kind of incorrect. Microscopes and telescopes are basically similar and the objectives of microscopes can be either refractive (lens based) or reflective (mirror based) (google reflective objectives). The most important parameter of an objective is the numerical aperture (N.A) which determines both resolution and light gathering capacity. Light gathering capacity of an objective might not be important in bright field imaging, but it is important in fluorescent imaging of fixed or more importantly living tissues or cells. Magnification is important in visual observation or imaging with CCD/CMOS but not at all important in scanning approaches such as confocal and multiphoton microscopies. Reflective objectives although having an important advantage of no chromatic aberration are generally not used in imaging at visible wavelengths. They are used in infrared imaging (aka “chemical imaging”) of tissues as infrared wavelengths could not pass through normal glasses used in making lens. Here is one article which used reflective objectives; “High-resolution Fourier-transform infrared chemical imaging with multiple synchrotron beams”.

  5. johnfg says:

    I’m gonna throw this out as a science educator who’s using these wonderful toys in elementary school classes from grades 4-8. They’re called SNAP circuits, you can find em on amazon. I’ve taken them home to play with them myself and they can be a heck of a lot of fun for adults too. We’re using them to improve STEM engagement on Native American reserves.

  6. Anonymous BMS Researcher says:

    For educational use, stuff on the dissecting microscope or hand lens level of magnification may actually give more bang for the buck than a higher mgnification compound microscope, just as good binoculars are great for stargazing. Several companies sell small USB scopes that use a computer for display purposes. And of course you can capture screenshots.

  7. patentgeek says:

    If you enjoy the midpoint between astronomy and microscopy (wildlife observing including bird watching), Zeiss Conquest 10 x 56 is an excellent pair of binoculars (though not cheap).

  8. KCMO_chemist says:

    It was the gift of a really crappy microscope for Christmas when I was 9 or 10 that hooked me on science! I still remember my dad bringing me some of those cheesy prepared slides of insect legs and other novelties when I was home sick with the flu later that winter.
    I still have that microscope in a single box of things to be grabbed in case of fire in the closet.
    No recommendation for the current discussion, but sometimes I think about buying one for myself.

  9. Chris D says:

    I got my 7yo the “Starter Microscope” from American Science & Surplus last year. Seems like a sturdy good deal for $65, and he loves it. They have substantially nicer ones as well.

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