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IBM and Atom Films: Modern Microscopy in Action
In early May 2013, worldwide news outlets reported on a brand new short film on Youtube that had “gone viral” in terms of popularity. But this wasn’t a skateboarding dog or a grumpy cat; the one-and-a-half minute video, “A Boy and His Atom,” was touted as the smallest movie ever made. IBM researchers created the stop-motion film by manipulating individual atoms into place using a scanning tunneling microscope. Guinness World Records officially verified that it was the world’s smallest stop-motion film. It’s a vibrant and exciting example of the work that’s currently being done using applied microscopy.
“A Boy and his Atom” was a side project in the IBM laboratories; the main goal was to experiment with atomic-level magnetism for digital memory storage. Since the development of the first hard drive in the 1950s, processor technology has sped up at an exponential rate, but over that timeline all digital hard drives have worked in essentially the same way: they break information down into a stream of bits - a binary unit that can only show either one or zero – and program that long binary code into the microprocessors. The coding is usually done using electromagnetic currents running to a series of tiny “switches”, each of which will either flip to one or stay at zero.
Today’s modern microprocessors use approximately 1 million atoms to store one single bit of information; that’s every one or zero. While it seems like a lot of atoms, they can still fit quite easily into a 32 Gigabyte smartphone – that’s 200 trillion bits! However, IBM has been working to reduce the size of the bit even more. Through scanning tunneling microscopy, the research team recently discovered that they could store one bit of information in just 12 atoms of carbon monoxide magnetically arranged on a small copper plate. Atomic-scale magnetic memory means that we may someday be able to store unbelievable amounts of data into a very small hard disk.
“A Boy and his Atom” was a demonstration of IBM’s ability to control and move single atoms into recognizable shapes. They do this by using an incredibly powerful microscope, which magnifies the atoms about 100 million times. It’s far beyond the resolving capability of light microscopes, or even electron-based beams. The scanning tunneling microscope, or STM, was originally developed in 1986, and it relies on a phenomenon called quantum tunneling, in which atoms hover above the surface of a solid object in a “cloud”. When another surface comes close to the original one, their clouds overlap and can affect the positioning of the atoms. The STM’s tip is refined down to one single atom; it gets so close to the target atom that they chemically interact in a predictable way, allowing the STM to drag the atom across a surface. According to the scientists, the atoms actually make a distinct sound when being moved, which resembles a record scratch! The researchers used carbon monoxide atoms arranged on a copper 111 plate, which provided the best magnetic bonding. The scanning surface is cooled to about -230 Kelvin, so the atoms are not vibrating at a high speed. For the film, they built each frame out of atoms and took a photograph of the result, just like in traditional stop-motion animation.
“A Boy and His Atom” is a fascinating example of real microscopy and real results. The ability to move individual atoms around is an incredible leap forward for science, and the new 8-atom bit shows the potential that can result from this power, all done with a very powerful microscope and some innovative imagination.
With the ushering in of sun and warmth of Spring (in most of the country at least) comes the timeless ritual every child enjoys – the chasing and catching of butterflies, fireflies and moths. And what parent can forget the beaming smile of a son or daughter letting them peek between clasped fingers to glimpse a pair of colorful wings?
Wings which, unfortunately, are so delicate they tend to loose a bit of their shimmering, pixie-dust-like coating on anything they touch, including little fingers.
This coating, which feels like fine powder, is actually composed of very tiny scales. These scales in turn, are delicate hair fibers, shaped by Mother Nature to serve a very special purpose. Interestingly enough, moths and butterflies belong to the order Lepidoptera, which actually means “scale wing”. The scales are pigmented and their complex design is unique to each species, offering a quick way to identify their owner.
These tiny scales also contribute to the pattern on the wings by diffracting light through a complex microscopic structure of ribs and holes, as you can see. This particular image comes to us courtesy of “Anavitrinella Pampinaria”, or the Common Gray moth, captured with an Optixcam OCS1.3 digital microscope camera at 400X magnification.
When these scales are viewed under a microscope they actually look like – feathers! This shouldn’t be too surprising, since they serve many of the same functions as feathers, adding structure and protection to delicate wing membranes. If the scales do assist flight, the effect is subtle. Butterflies and moths don’t actually need the scales to fly, but their wings are very fragile and if you handle them enough to rub the scales off, you’ll probably also damage the wing skins in the process.
The scales on moth and butterfly wings help defend and camouflage them from predatory bats because their uneven shape prevents the bats “sonar” from seeing them clearly. These fuzzy scales also cover the butterfly’s entire body, forming a very stealthy coating. Instead of a clearly-defined meal, the bat only sees a very fuzzy outline on its sonar scope.
So the next time your child bounds after a butterfly, tell them about the pixie-dust and add some magic to their chase.
For many of us sand is something we warm our toes in on the beach or play with under the climbing frame in the yard. It is yellow, small, gritty and is trailed throughout the house.Yet when looked at under a high power, compound microscope, it is transformed into a myriad of different shapes and sizes and an equal number of colors of breathtaking beauty. Dr Gary Greenberg has spent a lifetime studying sand and collecting a library of images through a microscope. Here are five interesting facts from his book A Grain of Sand:
1. Sand Signature: Forensic scientists can determine exactly where a particular sand originated. In World War II, the Japanese sent over 9,000 balloon bombs to drift over the Pacific Ocean in order to bomb the US. 320 landed in Oregon, Montana and Wyoming with one actually killing six people – the only combat casualties in the continental US. US scientists subsequently pinpointed the bomb factory by analyzing the sand contained in the balloons’ ballast sandbags. Since the sand had no quartz or granite crystals typical of a continent, they surmised the sand came from an island, in this case, Japan. Second, it contained coral so was likely from north of the tropical 35th parallel. Third, and the clincher, the sand contained a rare diatom discovered by a French expedition in 1889 and only found in an area near Tokyo. The US ended balloon bombs with their own bombing raid.
2. Stars > Grains of Sand: This is hard to believe but the astronomer Carl Sagan was probably right that the number of stars outnumbers the grains of sand on the world’s beaches. Based on certain assumptions about average grain size, beach depth and length, one estimate puts the number of grains of sand at 4,800,000,000,000,000,000,000. While we can only see about 6,000 stars at night in our galaxy, the Hubble Space telescope indicates the universe contains about 130 billion galaxies. The average galaxy contains about 400,000,000,000 stars, which indicates a total of 52,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars! Of course, once you count the sands of the desert, it may be a different story!
3. Singing Sands: Speaking of deserts, some people have heard eerie sounds coming from sand, like a freight train. They were not crazy! In specific deserts such as Eureka Dunes, CA or Sand Mountain, NV there are singing or barking sands. Characterized by specific conditions including dry and spherical sand grains, these sands emit a variety of sounds. Pitch is related to the grain size and volume to the surface texture. Of course, wind is an essential driver. Some people have had to shout in order to be heard over the singing!
4. Size, Shape & Colors: Like us, every single grain of sand is unique. They come in an infinite variety of shapes and colors. They are not just a mass of yellowish stones. Take a look under a microscopes and the full iridescent glory of their coloring and shapes becomes apparent. Bright reds of garnet, the pink of coral, the green of nephrite (a form of jade) and a plethora of others including of course, yellow.
5. Sources of Sand: In spite of these manifold differences, sand originates from only three sources: Rocks, Organisms or Minerals. Rocks form mineral sands. Organisms form biogenic sands and Minerals form precipitated sands. That’s it. Such a simple origin for such a complex array of sands.
You can enjoy the delights of sand with any high power, compound microscope. Using 40x-400x will bring the individual grains of sand into sharp contrast and while you may not be able to replicate the quality of Dr Greenberg’s images, you will never look at a beach in quite the same way again.
Following my recent blog article on deer ticks @scientificamerican, a reader commented that there was no mention of the miracle of the Western Fence Swift , more commonly known as the Bluebellied Lizard. Being a Brit and having lived on the East Coast for the past 20 years, I had never heard of it before, but it is an amazing story.
Lyme disease, characterized by fever, headache, fatigue and a bullseye rash, is spread through the bite of ticks infected with the bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi. However in the western US, the Western Fence Swift actually cleanses the tick of the bacteria. Apparently, the swift has a protein that kills Borrelia burgdorferi as it feeds on the swift’s blood.
Since 90% of nymph ticks feed on the lizard, it has always been assumed that the presence of the fence swift has accounted for the lower incidence of Lyme Disease in the western states. Unfortunately, over the past few years the numbers of western fence swift have been declining. As a result, the concern has been that there would be a corresponding increase in Lyme disease infections. However, a 2011 UC Berkeley study found that 95% of nymph ticks failed to find another host and presumably died. Such is the complexity of Nature and disease.
For the past 5 years or so, we have been supporting American beekeepers by sponsoring a microscopy course at the Eastern Apiculture Society (EAS) meeting. In addition, we have a Special Offer for beekeepers in the form of the high power, compound microscope Omano OM36. Last week, we wrote a blog article for Scientific American on microscopy and bees called “Bees Under the Microscope”, which covered the uses of microscopes in beekeeping.
In writing the article I learnt two things. First, a new word: Melissopalynology or the study of honey and second, that microscopic images of honey pollen can be stunningly beautiful. Gretchen D. Jones, Ph.D, of the United States Department of Agriculture Research Science, Area-wide Pest Management Research Unit is an expert in melissopalynology….and as this picture evidences clearly of photomicrography as well!
Beyond that, the article also addressed how few beekeepers actually use a microscope in spite of their immediate benefits. Most beekeepers are unable to diagnose any hive infection until it is self-evident and many apparently treat their colonies with heavy doses of antibiotics just in case they are infected! Yet they are all puzzled by the crisis of colony collapse disorder that faces the honey bee throughout the world.
Please read the full article and share it.
Like many, if not all Internet retailers, we are bound to use Amazon as an alternate channel to reach our customers. As of the past few weeks, we have also started using Fulfillment By Amazon (FBA) for microscopes because increasingly, it is a requirement in order to maintain any possibility of achieving the so-called Buy Box and therefore, of achieving any sales off Amazon.
What concerns me is that more people are using Amazon as the default online shopping option as opposed to visiting the underlying Internet retailer. Nowadays, the niche retailer must offer comparable pricing to Amazon so the primary difference lies in the speed of shipping and the trust in the respective brands. No one….no one can compete with Amazon’s logistic and distribution capabilities. Witness their increasing same day shipping capability.
But what is the cost of using Amazon as the default shopping and shipping option?
The easy answer is 12-15% average fees paid to Amazon on any given sale. Every time, you purchase one of our microscopes off Amazon instead of off our website, we incur an average fee cost of 12-15%. While this is a small amount of our overall business, for many Internet retailers, these fees are likely to reduce their profits to the point where they will go out of business. They will cease to exist especially as once they reach a given size, Amazon is likely to start selling the same products direct themselves. Think of the number of small-mid size jobs that will be lost due to this inexorable outcome?
The less drastic outcome, but nevertheless still a cost, is the loss of niche expertise, advice and service. For example, many Dino-Lite vendors on Amazon are not in any sense microscope retailers. They sell a multitude of different products. By using Amazon FBA, they (and by necessity, we) are able to deliver the product within one to two days at no extra cost to the Amazon prime customer. It is possible that if enough Dino-Lite sales are diverted through Amazon, as opposed to being bought off our Microscope.com website, we would cease to offer Dino-Lite microscopes in the same way that we currently do. We would probably be unable to justify the high level of personal service and advice we dedicate to each customer in order to ensure they purchase the appropriate product for their application. This is a direct cost to the customer. The loss of expertise.
Similarly, service suffers in another way. Have you noticed how all the rave reviews on Amazon relate to post sales service where the customer has had a problem? It seems to me that the great American consumer is reducing ‘good service’ to the lowest common denominator of how well did the company clean up the mess? This is a sad state of affairs when we lower our standards to such a reduced concept of customer service.
Finally, the inexorable rise of Amazon (and if you do not believe me, take a look at this excellent summary by faberNovel http://goo.gl/Ntmti) will create not just less choice, but it is entirely possible that more of your life than you ever thought possible will be controlled – more accurately, monopolized – by Amazon in one way or another. There are those people who are already suspicious of Google. There is a growing awareness and aversion to their all-knowing capability of your life and lifestyle. I suggest, however, that Google is a neophyte compared to Amazon.
Amazon has won our hearts and wallets by the simple expedient of providing what we want across an increasing number of product and service areas. In this it has executed on a brilliant and visionary strategy for which Jeff Bezos will go down in history as a quite extraordinary innovator. However, if you start to consider as long term into the future as he does, I think you will begin to see the scary side of the equation. You will not have any choice.
Beetlemania by Microscope
The next time you go for a walk in the woods, keep an eye out for one of Mother Nature’s most stunning samples of entomology, the two-inch long Dynastes Tityus, otherwise known as the Eastern Hercules beetle.
Quite an imposing member of the Rhinoceros species, the Eastern Hercules is aptly named for the prominent horns found on the male beetles. At first glance, they come across like something straight out of a science fiction movie, especially the males, whose forceps-like horns alone can stretch a couple of inches. According to Tom Kuhar, Associate Professor of Entomology at Virginia Tech, the Eastern Hercules beetle is the largest scarab beetle in the United States. When you find one, it’ll make for quite an entertaining tale. After all, it isn’t every day you meet up with a bug as big as your hand!
While these little gargantuans may look fierce and menacing, they are actually quite peaceful and reclusive, preferring to spend their lives chewing their way through the rotting bark of various fallen hardwoods like oak and pine trees or compost on the forest floor. They’ve even been known to set up semi-permanent home nesting sites in the heartwood of crumbling logs, where generation after generation of Eastern Hercules larvae dine on rotten wood delicacies.
A native of the rainforests in Central America, the Eastern Hercules beetle’s U.S. habitat stretches from the Florida Keys through the southern states, north to Lake Michigan and west to the Arizona desert. But you have to throw in a bit of luck in order to see one. They have a lifespan of just 12-16 months and only the last 3-4 months are spent above ground as an adult.
We were fortunate enough to find this female ambling along the woods outside our warehouse. The images of the female depicted above, were captured by a Dino-Lite AD4113T handheld digital microscope camera from our lab. She was an amicable model and kept crawling toward the ring of bright LED lights in the nose of the microscope. It is a quite fitting testament to today’s technology really, that a beetle as big as your hand can be photographed by a microscope as small as your hand. Beetlemania by microscope indeed!
Well, it appears that we are doing something right!
We are delighted to have been awarded TopTenREVIEWS 2013 Gold Award for Best Online Microscope Retailer for the fifth consecutive year. Most pleasing is that they they clearly recognize our commitment to customer service. Everyone claims they offer great customer service and while we fall into that category, we do actually work on it on a daily basis across about a dozen measures. Things like making sure the website offers a great experience, maintaining microscopes items in stock, same day shipping and most important of all, making sure that our customers are looked after well. Easy to say, but everyone at Microscope.com just ‘gets it’. We all share a desire to help, to enjoy the day and our customers….which doesn’t mean we always get it right…but when we make a mistake, we make it good quickly efficiently and with good humor. It’s no exaggeration to say that some of our most loyal customers have been won by correcting our mistakes in such a manner. Like Andrew Carnegie, we always act in good faith and give our customers the benefit of the doubt.
Looking over the review, I was particularly please, therefore by this sentence: “The customer service is absolutely the best and the inventory, support, shipping options, educational discounts and related information available on the site makes it a clear winner among the best-of-the-best online microscope stores.” I guess it sums up what we do best!
I was watching Conan last month when on came Willard Wigan using an Omano SXGA-V3 microscope system.
Wigan is amazing. He creates microscopic sculptures on a pin head! Seriously…..he can only do it under a microscope and since even the smallest motion, such as the vibration from traffic outside, can affect his art he works a lot at night. His technique requires intense concentration. Apparently, he slows his breathing and heart rate so that he can reduce his hand tremors and…..wait for it….so that he can work in between pulse beats! He has been known to accidentally inhale a sculpture; such is the minuscule nature of his art.
More seriously, his sculptures are truly amazing and have been called the eight wonder of the world. Last year, he made a crown for the Queen to celebrate her Diamond Jubilee and he lists Simon Cowell, Elton John and Mike Tyson among his clients……Mike Tyson??!! On Conan, he exhibits a range of sculptures including one of The White House complete with President Obama.
I have a long way to go with my microscope!
Has anyone else noticed the increasing number of microscope websites that advertise compound microscopes with mechanical stages….when in reality they are selling them with inferior mechanical slide holders? We think you should know the difference.
Mechanical Stage: A mechanical stage is integrated to any professional microscope. In other words, it is standard operating equipment for any regular microscope user – which in itself speaks volumes. Typically, double-layered, a mechanical stage provides a stable slide platform and provides more precise movement of the microscope slide without the need to raise your eyes from viewing the specimen. This is important for any type of regular user since it makes for a significantly more seamless user experience. Less hassle = more productive and enjoyable experience.
The structure of a mechanical stage includes a large hole to enable light from the condenser to pass through and includes drop down, right-hand coaxial controls. It is these coaxial controls that enable the ‘eyes-down’ operation. Often left-handed controls are also available. Standard mechanical stages include a spring loaded slide holder integrated into the design and XY axis that include graduated locator markings for precise movement of the slide.
Mechanical Slide Holder: A mechanical slide holder is a small and simple, spring loaded slide holder that can be attached by screws on to a plain microscope stage. While strictly speaking, it might be referred to as a microscope stage, microscopy professionals commonly differentiate it by calling it a mechanical slide holder. A good analogy is a motorcycle. Strictly speaking it is a motor vehicle, but no one thinks of it as such and it would be misleading to sell it as such.
Anyway, a mechanical slide holder includes two small knobs that enable X/Y movement with limited graduated locator markings. These control knobs are separate for X and Y motion, are a fraction of the size of a mechanical stage and require you to look up from the specimen. They are, in other words, somewhat awkward to use. They can also work loose over time.
As a result, these slide holders are designed for younger microscopists or where budget is limited. Budgetary constraints are understandable but we are not convinced about the argument around kids. In our opinion, kids needs to be engaged as easily as possible with a microscope – as with nay new learning experience. This includes engaging subject matter and a hassle free environment. Otherwise, they are less likely to continue their interest.
The problem with a compound microscope is that young children often find slide specimens somewhat abstract (ie less engaging). When you layer on more hassle in using a cheaper microscope, in this case with a mechanical slide holder, you are decreasing the chance of sustaining their interest and attention.
The Community Health Center in the village of Ngoswani, Kenya recently received an Omano OM88 clinical microscope to aid in their efforts to combat the spread of deadly diseases. In this environment a simple mosquito bite can trigger the fever, chills nausea and diarrhea linked to most common forms of malaria, and the modern microscope plays a critical role in malaria identification and treatment.
According to our customer Cheryl Cumnagin, “It has proven to be an invaluable tool for the clinic, as they have been able to discover and treat cases of malaria and other diseases.” Having a microscope has also enabled the clinic to hire a lab technician named Naomi, pictured below, to help with blood testing and analysis.
One of the major intangible benefits of our work here at Microscope.com is the ability to positively impact the lives of school children the world over. One such example comes to us by way of an email recently sent by customer Jeri Bennet, a member of the United Methodist Church. She recently traveled with her husband on a missionary trip to a small rural school in Mukono, Uganga.
Accompanying them was a freshly serviced pair of Omano OM118-M4 student microscopes, designed specifically for introducing young scientists to the fascinating world of microscopy. In a land where basic school supplies are at a premium, these microscopes were received with great enthusiasm by students and teacher alike, as shown in the images below.
Located in the Lukojjo village in Mpoma parish, a sub-county of Nama in the Mukono District of Uganda, HUMBLE School first opened its doors in February 2004, as a day and boarding primary school with initial enrollment of approximately 116 pupils and nine teaching staff.
Under the leadership of United Methodist Bishop Mike B. Watson, over 50 of these children have now graduated from HUMBLE and are enrolled at nearby secondary schools. Microscopes such as these not only help to educate the children, they also play a critical role in the ongoing struggle against Malaria and other infectious diseases and it is our continuing privilege to honor their efforts and the hard work of customers like Jeri Bennet.
You can now source Omano magnifying lamps on Amazon. All our magnifying lamps have been reduced in price since we have significant overstock. As a result, in spite of their excellent quality, they have all been reduced in price to less than 50% of identical products on competing websites. However, for some obscure reason known only to Amazon, they have been include din sporting goods! These lamps are primarily for industrial indpection applications, although a couple of them are also suitable for home use on the desktop.
Recently, we donated an Omano OM88 compound microscope to New Frontiers Health Force for their Ngoswani clinic in Kenya. To our delight, we have just received a heart-warming thank you letter from no less than Naomi, the new Lab technician hired to use the microscope, an email from one of the volunteers who traveled to Ngoswani this May and a newsletter thank you from the director, Dr Tonya Hawthorne. It makes such a difference to hear back from the recipients and it makes our day to realize that such a simple gift has such a profound impact.
New Frontier HF had successfully built the clinic over many years, but to our surprise this was their first microscope! Previously, the only access to blood tests was an university hospital in Narok about 1 1/2 hours away and at some expense. 1 1/2 hours may not seem far but unless you have experienced the bone-jarring “corrugations” of rural Kenyan roads, it is hard to understand the delight in not having to endure this on a regular basis! Now the clinic can do blood work on site and they have already diagnosed multiple cases of malaria. To put it in perspective, once the microscope was unpacked and ready to go, such was the excitement that the entire clinic stopped working in order to enjoy the moment.
The award comes as the company celebrates 14 years of service to microscope enthusiasts from all walks of life, continuing a tradition of customer service excellence dating back to the company’s founding by a teacher in 1998.
The Review summarized Microscope.com as “one of the cleanest (websites) to navigate, easiest to get help from and offers one of the widest selections of all the microscope stores we looked at. It’s user-friendly and the customer service is fast and good-natured. This is just a really great site to partner with, whether you are an educator, amateur entomologist, gemologist or interested in any other field of microscopy. The customer service is absolutely the best.”
Company president, Charles Crookenden, commented “We are just delighted to receive this award again! It is a continuing tribute to our team who work so hard to ensure that our customers are truly satisfied.”
TopTenReviews recognizes industry-leading companies in all sectors of e-commerce who demonstrate consistently superior user experience, customer service and support. Microscope.com’s website was reviewed by an executive panel and judged on four key criteria: inventory, site features, ease of navigation and overall experience.
Located in the technology corridor of southwest Virginia, Microscope.com is a leading e-commerce retailer of microscopes for everyday use.