We live in a beautiful world – and that beauty and complexity extends far beyond what humans can see unaided. From plant and animal anatomy to cells and proteins and even down to the level of atoms, there are worlds within worlds of detail to be explored on the microscopic scale.

Microscopes are the tools that allow us to look more closely at objects, seeing beyond what is visible with the naked eye. Without them, we would have no idea about the existence of cells or how plants breathe or how rocks change over time. Our understanding of the world around us would be severely limited – and this is why many scientists see microscopes as the most important scientific instrument there is.

Our microscope resources invite students to share in the sense of wonder that scientists have felt for centuries looking through the microscope. We look at the diversity of objects on the microscopic scale and introduce several New Zealand scientists who use microscopes to explore the things that interest them. At the same time, we show how microscopes themselves have evolved to look more and more closely at the world around us.

Microscopes: technology driving science

Using the earliest microscopes, scientists glimpsed a world of unimaginable complexity – and they wanted to know more. To satisfy this urge, microscope technology became more sophisticated over time, letting us look more and more closely at objects. We’ve been able to ask more specific questions about the object we’re viewing: What does its surface or internal structure look like? What is it made up of? How does it change over time? For each of these questions, specialised microscopes have now been developed that can provide the answers.

Doing microscopy – it’s a dream world. You’re always going to see something beautiful.

- Dr Bronwyn Lowe, Clothing and Textile Sciences, within the Department of Applied Sciences, University of Otago

Our microscope resources emphasise the link between microscope technology and the science that microscopes have helped uncover. The activity Which microscope is best? is a good starting point for learning how specialised microscopes can help answer different scientific questions.

New Zealand through the microscope

Two of the research stories we feature have a uniquely Kiwi perspective.

At the University of Otago, Dr Bronwyn Lowe and Māori weavers have been working closely together to explore several properties of harakeke (New Zealand flax). In the article Harakeke under the microscope, learn about the differences between harakeke varieties on the microscopic scale and explore how mātauranga Māori (traditional Māori knowledge) can shed light on scientific research.

New Zealanders are only too aware of how devastating a major earthquake can be. Professor Dave Prior and his group are looking for clues to how and why earthquakes happen. In the article Squishy rocks and earthquakes and the interactive From mountains to microscopes, follow Dave and the team as they collect rock samples from deep in the Alpine Fault (Westland) and see how microscopy of rocks can shed light on the history of movement in the fault.

A closer look at cells

Two further research stories focus on cells in the body.

Dr Rebecca Campbell is studying a small group of brain cells (GnRH neurons) that control fertility. Learn about her remarkable discoveries about how these cells interconnect – all done using microscopes of course!

Associate Professor Tony Poole shares his story about the primary cilium, a structure of the surface of cells that seems to monitor what’s going on in the cell surroundings. This elusive structure was first tracked down using microscopes, and many aspects of how it works remain mysterious. In the article A closer look at the cell’s antenna, see how Tony is using microscopes to build a 3D computer model of the primary cilium.

Science ideas in exploring with microscopes

Our articles explain some of the big science ideas associated with microscopy:

Take up the challenge

The student activities provide plenty of hands-on experiences. Modelling animal cells in 3D imitates what can be seen under high-resolution microscopes. Using lolly slices to build 3D images and Using shadows to build 3D images model how scientists interpret microscopic data. Ferns under the microscope demonstrates how increasing the power of magnification leads to much greater detail.

Key terms

For explanations of key concepts, see Exploring with microscopes – key terms

Published 29 February 2012, Updated 21 February 2017