At Low Magnification
At lunch in France last week, with an expert on cheese and its management, the conversation turned to mites. The four teenage girls who were of the party wanted to know what they were getting their teeth into. Cheese mites are too small to be seen easily with the naked eye. Was there a magnifying glass around? There I could help, I had two of the kind of hand lenses botanists and geologists use in the field. One magnifies by 10, the other by 20. The mites, glistening white blobs, could be seen moving slowly across the grey crust. I hope, but do not expect, to have recruited at least one of the girls to the pleasures of low magnification.
Vol. 32 No. 18 · 23 September 2010
Peter Campbell’s article on the pleasures of low magnification comes very close to Ruskinian recommendations (LRB, 9 September). There are a number of instances in Ruskin’s writing where he is reluctant to allow the microscope to play a part in visual education. In The Laws of Fésole he speaks of ‘the proper limits of artistic investigation’ within the scope of the human eye, and in Letter 95 of Fors Clavigera dismisses ‘microscopic observation’ from a child’s education in botany, and even thinks that the plants being studied ‘should be left growing’. In The Art of England he states that ‘all delicacy which is rightly pleasing to the human mind is addressed to the unaided human sight, not to microscopic help or mediation.’ Ruskin had a point, but there is plenty to be said in opposition. He was in danger of excluding himself from the traditions of scientific inquiry.
Brasenose College, Oxford