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Through a Microscope


SOME MORAL REFLECTIONS


This dabbler person has recently disposed of his camera and obtained a
microscope--a short, complacent-looking implement it is, of brass--and
he goes about everywhere now with little glass bottles in his pocket,
ready to jump upon any stray polly-woggle he may find, and hale it home
and pry into its affairs. Within his study window are perhaps half a
dozen jars and basins full of green scum and choice specimens of black
mud in which his victims live. He persists in making me look through
this instrument, though I would rather I did not. It seems to me a kind
of impropriety even when I do it. He gets innumerable things in a drop
of green water, and puts it on a glass slip under the object glass, and,
of course, they know nothing of the change in their condition, and go on
living just as they did before they were observed. It makes me feel at
times like a public moralist, or Peeping Tom of Coventry, or some such
creature.

Certainly there are odd things enough in the water. Among others,
certain queer green things that are neither plants nor animals. Most of
the time they are plants, quiet green threads matted together, but every
now and then the inside comes out of one, so to speak, and starts off
with a fine red eye and a long flickering tail, to see the world. The
dabbler says it's quite a usual thing among the lower plants--_Algæ_ he
calls them, for some reason--to disgorge themselves in this way and go
swimming about; but it has quite upset my notions of things. If the
lower plants, why not the higher? It may be my abominable imagination,
but since he told me about these--swarm spores I think he called
them--I don't feel nearly so safe with my geraniums as I did.

A particularly objectionable thing in these water drops, the dabbler
insists upon my spying at is the furious activity of everything you see
in them. You look down his wretched tube, and there, bright and yellow
with the lamplight in the round field of the microscope, is a perfect
riot of living things. Perhaps it's the water he got from Hampstead, and
a dozen flat things the shape of shortbreads will be fussing about.
They are all quite transparent and colourless, and move about like
galleys by means of a lot of minute oars that stick out all over them.
Never a moment's rest. And, presently, one sees that even the green
plant threads are wriggling across the field. The dabbler tries to
moralise on this in the vein of Charles Kingsley, and infer we have much
to learn from these ridiculous creatures; but, so far as I can see, it's
a direct incentive to sloth to think how low in the scale of creation
these things are, in spite of all their fussing. If they had sat about
more and thought, they might be fishing the dabbler out of ponds and
examining him instead of his examining them. Your energetic people might
do worse things than have a meditative half-hour at the microscope. Then
there are green things with a red spot and a tail, that creep about like
slugs, and are equally transparent. _Euglena viridis_ the dabbler calls
them, which seems unnecessary information. In fact all the things he
shows me are transparent. Even the little one-eyed Crustacea, the size
of a needle-point, that discredit the name of Cyclops. You can see their
digestion and muscle and nerve, and, in fact, everything. It's at least
a blessing we are not the same. Fancy the audible comments of the
temperance advocate when you get in the bus! No use pulling yourself
together then. "Pretty full!" And "Look," people would say, "his wife
gives him cold mutton."

Speaking of the name of Cyclops reminds me that these scientific people
have been playing a scurvy trick upon the classics behind our backs. It
reminds one of Epistemon's visit to Hades, when he saw Alexander a
patcher of clouts and Xerxes a crier of mustard. Aphrodite, the dabbler
tells me, is a kind of dirty mud-worm, and much dissected by spectacled
pretenders to the London B.Sc.; every candidate, says the syllabus, must
be able to dissect, to the examiner's satisfaction, and demonstrate upon
Aphrodite, Nereis, Palæmon. Were the gods ever so insulted? Then the
snaky Medusa and Pandora, our mother, are jelly-fish; Astræa is still to
be found on coral reefs, a poor thing, and much browsed upon by parrot
fish; and Doris and Tethys and Cydippe are sea slugs. It's worse than
Heine's vision of the gods grown old. They can't be content with the
departed gods merely. Evadne is a water flea--they'll make something out
of Mrs. Sarah Grand next; and Autolycus, my Autolycus! is a polymorphic
worm, whatever subtlety of insult "polymorphic worm" may convey.

However, I wander from the microscope. These shortbread things are
fussing about hither and thither across the field, and now and then an
amoeba comes crawling into view. These are invertebrate jelly-like
things of no particular shape, and they keep on thrusting out a part
here, and withdrawing a part there, and changing and advancing just as
though they were popular democratic premiers. Then diatoms keep gliding
athwart the circle. These diatoms are, to me at least, the most
perplexing things in the universe. Imagine a highly ornamental thing in
white and brown, the shape of a spectacle case, without any limbs or
other visible means of progression, and without any wriggling of the
body, or indeed any apparent effort at all, gliding along at a smart
pace. That's your diatom. The dabbler really knows nothing of how they
do it. He mumbles something about Bütschli and Grenfell. Imagine the
thing on a larger scale, Cleopatra's Needle, for instance, travelling on
its side up the Thames Embankment, and all unchaperoned, at the rate of
four or five miles an hour.

There's another odd thing about these microscope things which redeems,
to some extent at least, their singular frankness. To use the decorous
phrase of the text-book, "They multiply by fission." Your amoeba or
vorticella, as the case may be, splits in two. Then there are two amoebæ
or vorticellæ. In this way the necessity of the family, that
middle-class institution so abhorrent to the artistic mind, is avoided.
In my friend's drop of ditch-water, as in heaven, there is neither
marrying nor giving in marriage. There are no waste parents, which
should appeal to the scholastic mind, and the simple protozoon has none
of that fitful fever of falling in love, that distressingly tender state
that so bothers your mortal man. They go about their business with an
enviable singleness of purpose, and when they have eaten and drunk, and
attained to the fulness of life, they divide and begin again with
renewed zest the pastime of living.

In a sense they are immortal. For we may look at this matter in another
light, and say our exuberant protozoon has shed a daughter, and remains.
In that case the amoeba I look at may have crawled among the slime of
the Silurian seas when the common ancestor of myself and the royal
family was an unassuming mud-fish like those in the reptile house in the
Zoo. His memoirs would be interesting. The thought gives a solemn tint
to one's meditations. If the dabbler wash him off this slide into his
tube of water again, this trivial creature may go on feeding and growing
and dividing, and presently be thrown away to wider waters, and so
escape to live ... after I am dead, after my masterpieces are forgotten,
after our Empire has passed away, after the human animal has passed
through I know not what vicissitudes. It may be he will still, with the
utmost nonchalance, be pushing out his pseudopodia, and ingesting
diatoms when the fretful transitory life of humanity has passed
altogether from the earth. One may catch him in specimen tubes by the
dozen; but still, when one thinks of this, it is impossible to deny him
a certain envious, if qualified, respect.

And all the time these creatures are living their vigorous, fussy little
lives; in this drop of water they are being watched by a creature of
whose presence they do not dream, who can wipe them all out of existence
with a stroke of his thumb, and who is withal as finite, and sometimes
as fussy and unreasonably energetic, as themselves. He sees them, and
they do not see him, because he has senses they do not possess, because
he is too incredibly vast and strange to come, save as an overwhelming
catastrophe, into their lives. Even so, it may be, the dabbler himself
is being curiously observed.... The dabbler is good enough to say that
the suggestion is inconceivable. I can imagine a decent amoeba saying
the same thing.

H.G. Wells