A New Take on a Centuries-Old Dent in Microbiology

The Times' papier-mâché rendering of van Leeuwenhoek at his microscope.

Yesterday, we looked at modern day microbiologists who are looking to the flora within the human body as a source for new methods of killing antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Today, we travel back to 1647 and the birth of microbiology with the New York Times.

In 1647, a Dutch scientist named Antonie van Leeuwenhoek looked through looked at a jar of lake water through his homemade microscope; and in that moment, became the first human being to ever see microscopic lifeforms. Van Leeuwenhoek, who worked as a haberdasher by day, then spent the remainder of his life cataloguing all manner of microscopic organisms and relaying his findings to other scientists in Europe.

The New York Times has a beautiful animated short documentary that evokes the wonder van Leeuwenhoek must have felt as he made discovery after discovery in a previously unseen world. The piece is the first in a series of short films that will cover many of the most important early discoveries in science:

This video is the debut of a new Op-Docs series called “Animated Life,” a collaboration between Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s BioInteractive and The New York Times. Born from a previous Op-Doc, “The Animated Life of A.R. Wallace” (which features the other guy who discovered natural selection), the series will explore pivotal moments of discovery, and the characters past and present who have driven us to see the world in new ways.

Since these moments are rarely captured on film, we are recreating them — with paper. The style is not without challenges: We went through 15 different heads before poor Leeuwenhoek looked sufficiently human. Admittedly, our Vibrio harveyi bacteria still don’t look quite like sausages, which is how the microbiologist Bonnie Bassler describes them. Truly, there are limits to what can be achieved with papier-mâché.

We at Dent fully expect that this visually stunning and moving new series will make some dents in both science reporting and papier-mâché. Watch out, world!

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