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Water under a microscope

All That Dwells in a Drop of Water


An 1851 book gives a microscopic glimpse of everything that can exist in but a drop of water.

Like a grain of sand, a drop of water embodies the immeasurable within the tiny. That very smallness doesn’t imply though that this drop can’t be inhabited itself by other universes. Published in London in 1851, Drops of Water: Their Marvellous and Beautiful Inhabitants Displayed by the Microscope, by Agnes Catlow, is a tribute to these microcosmic paradoxes.

In 19th-century England, an obsession grew with everything the microscope could reveal, although such instruments weren’t available to non-specialists until the later Victorian era. Catlow’s book appeared in this context and celebrates such animalcules (mostly of the genre Glenomorum) which live in puddles and smaller bodies of standing water. It’s a guide for any amateur who’d like to delve into these tiny ecosystems. In the preface, the author refers to her book as a door similar to that through which Alice passes into Wonderland in Lewis Carroll’s book of the same period.

Like grains of pollen seen up close, such portraits of the invisible —made by the lithographer A. Achilles— invite us into a world that has life and movement. Beings of strange colors and fascinating geometries remind us of something too easily forgotten: all these worlds exist though, alas, we can’t see them.


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