This is a bit of an odd post, but for those of you who are interested, the Lidl store in Inverurie (in the new retail park) have about 7 microscopes for sale. Yes, that’s right, you can pick up a light microscope along with your cheap German sausages. I don’t know if any other Lidl stores have them, I haven’t looked and they’re not mentioned in their online weekly “specials”. They cost £50 and for £50 you do get a lot for your money.
When I worked in the lab, I used to like my time on the microscope. I was never a technical whizz, but I could occasionally get a decent image and several of those pictures now grace this website. I think there are several reasons I enjoyed being “on the microscope”. Generally, labs are busy, noisy places, you rarely have more than 1m of space to yourself (and in some places I’ve worked even that was a luxury). Microscopes are invariably housed in dark cupboards (or glorified cupboards). They are dark because to get the best image you need to cut down on extra light (or so my hazy understanding of physics has me believe). This means they a) have a door that closes and b) are a lot quieter than the rest of the laboratory. You usually had to book the microscope a week or two in advance, so when you came to look at your slides you usually had 1-2 hours of uninterrupted peace and as an added bonus you got to sit down while you did it. What could be better?
Anyway, when I saw the £50 microscope in Lidl I was sorely tempted. However the microscopes I used in the laboratory invariably cost more than my house and the chemicals I used on the slides often cost more than I earned in a month. So is there any point in owning a £50 microscope? Yes!
The microscope is made by a German company, Bresser (and not as I first expected a Chinese import). The microscope is a Biolux AL (the technical specifications are similar but not exact). It is, as you would expect a bottom of the range, beginners microscope. However, £50 is still a lot of money and while I would love to spend hundreds on a top of the range model, I just don’t have the cash. So what do you get for fifty quid? More than I expected.
To start, it all comes in a nice carrying case. You might think this is unimportant. I don’t! I teach all over the country, I carry my (small) laptop and (large) data projector with me. This microscope is small enough and portable enough that I can take it with me to talks, lectures and teaching sessions. It’s always really nice to let people have a go. I certainly wouldn’t carry a top of the range microscope with me, but I am pleased that this one is small and easy to transport.
The microscope itself is metal (and not plastic as I had assumed). It has 3 lenses a 4x, 10x ad 40x. A laboratory microscope often has a x100, but this is an “oil immersion” lens and brings with it it’s own set of problems. Bigger isn’t always better, the numerical aperture of a microscope is as important as the “strength” of the objective lenses. For eyepieces (the bit you look through) it comes with two wide-field lenses at x5 and x16. I think wide-field lenses on a microscope like this are a good idea, they let you see more. Lens technology has come on amazingly in the last 20 years and I can’t fault the lenses on this microscope, especially considering the price I paid (I mean, my glasses cost £100 a lens!).
For those of you that remember dodgy science sets or school microscopes with crappy mirrors underneath you’ll be pleased to know technology has moved on. This microscope has LED lights. Purists among you may turn your nose up, but the truth is, on an entry level microscope LEDs are light, cheap and don’t cook your sample. You can control the level of light using a dimmer.
The microscope also has a mechanical stage so you can move about your slide, all microscopes I have ever used have had this, but I appreciate some of the cheaper ones at the bottom end of the scale don’t. It also has a “6 wheel colour filter”. I don’t know what this is for. Is it a gimmick? It doesn’t seem to make any difference to me, but if you know better please leave a comment below.
Now here is the thing that tickled me pink, it also comes with a USB camera, that’s right, you can take digital photos of what you see down the microscope and send them (via USB) to your computer. This means you can put the images into your PowerPoint slides, Facebook albums, email, website or anywhere else that takes your fancy. You also get a copy of software for taking photos (if your German is up to it, you can download the software from the support section of the Meade website).
To finish off, you get some dissecting needles, scissors and a plastic pipette, a small circular scalpel thing for cutting sections, some dried yeast and brine shrimp to give you something to look at and a couple of pre prepared slides. Oh yes and a plastic cover for the microscope. Not bad for £50.
So what are the bad points? It doesn’t have a variable condenser or iris, so you lack control over the contrast and glare. You don’t have a fine focus either, which makes getting the digital images in focus a bit hit or miss. It’s monocular (i.e you need to shut one eye to look down the tube). I find this a lot harder than you might think!
The proof of the pudding is in the eating, so are the images any good? You can judge for yourself. Each image is about 30kb, which may make this post a bit slow to load, but if you’ve got this far hopefully you’ll be fine!
The images are a Scottish thistle, a cotton fibre, a bit of pine wood and a house fly wing. The cotton fibre and the pine wood were prepared (stained) slides that came with the microscope. I intend taking more “cell based” images as soon as I have the time, I’ll also post some links to amateur microscopy sites, so watch this space!
If you have any tips on amateur microscopy I’d love to hear from you.