My grandmother had a most curious way of dealing with things medical. Folk remedies were a speciality. Colds and the flu were treated with hot mustard plasters on your chest - something so unpleasant that I remember being thankful that the flu came after she had returned to her home after a long visit. Warts were to be subdued by stealing a wash towel from a neighbor, washing the wart with the cloth and burying the cloth under moonlight. Within a month the wart was supposed to disappear.
She was horrified when she learned that I was going to study physics. To her physic took on an older meaning - a medicine that purges - she thought I wanted to be a proctologist.
A visit to the dermatologist to deal with a stubborn wart reminded me of her. Liquid nitrogen and scalpels rather than towels from unsuspecting neighbors. While there I had a few suspicious moles examined. It turns out the tool used was neat enough that I wanted one.
Basically a small hand-held low power microscope with a built-in digital camera, it had wifi and was linked to an iPad where the image was displayed and analyzed. A biopsy was done on one, but the software and large image gave her a high degree of confidence that nothing was wrong.
The ProScope comes in models that are tethered to a laptop or desktop computer as well as the wireless portable model for iPads and iPhones. They are a bit spendy, but the quality seems good and they are used in police labs and by medical professionals. I suspect the wireless model and an iPad would be enormous fun in the woods.
A few days ago I wrote about getting into amateur astronomy. Looking at the world differently can teach you a lot and lead to insight. The slightly too small to see well is fantastic and is all around us. So if you prefer the daylight and are inclined to the stuff of biology, a microscope can be a fantastic tool.
The problem, as is true with telescopes, is the low end models are poorly made and getting or giving one can be counterproductive. Like telescopes power is the usually advertising point with 1000x or more being commonly advertised.
Don’t believe it. A sub $200 microscope is probably a toy and anything with more than 400x magnifying power is probably going to cost well over $500 to deliver a good image. It is possible to pick up used microscopes, but finding a good one that has been well maintained is difficult. Amateur microscopy does not have the following amateur astronomy does, so it is difficult (but not impossible) to find a helpful mentor.
It makes sense to understand what you want to look at. For most purposes I like low power microscopes that you can easily carry into the field. Stereo microscopes can give a nice 3d images. We have a neat little Nikon field microscope that fills the bill well. Twenty power, a lovely image for the price and very rugged. You can throw it in a pack and bring it out when you are curious. They have a higher end model that allows you to attach a camera although you can do it on this one by finding a lens adapter. This will open up an even more interesting world as you can collect and digitally analyze what you find. There is a slightly less inexpensive model without an illuminator that is aimed more at kids - for the curious sort of kid who is strongly into getting dirty and watching nature this could be an amazing gift.
If you get more serious you have to think about what sort of microscope you want and do you want to get into sample preparation. Higher powers are usually found by looking through the sample - which can require sectioning and staining the sample. No big deal if you have some lab experience and certainly the results can be amazing, but your interests might lie in somewhat larger specimens.1 There is so much that will be new and possibly a revelation. Even the simple Nikon field microscope we have had led to many hours of wonderful exploration. The intricate structure of tiny flowers, the structure of a seed, even the detail on a piece of paper money.
You can do other things. Pixar spent quite a bit of time exploring the world from the point of view of an ant. Imagine walking through a lawn with blades of grass towering over you. They build specialized optics that a camera was attached to giving a view we normally don’t access. Some areas became exotic tropical forests. There is no reason an amateur couldn’t build something to do the same thing.
You can also explore different time scales. Many cameras have settings that allow you to take exposures at a regular interval. The exposures can be combined into the frames of a video at video rate of 24 or about 30 frames a second to give the illusion of smooth motion. Nature speeded up! The inexpensive GoPro HD Hero2 cameras do this well - a friend has been shooting fascinating videos and sending links nearly every weekend.
To look at short lived events you tend to need more exotic apparatus, but it can be very rewarding. Drop a note if you are seriously interested in doing this and I can send pointers - there are many directions and it wouldn’t be productive to write twenty or more pages trying to cover something that is probably of narrow interest.
Telescopes, microscopes and other tools are accessible to the hobbyist and expand your view into different scales, spaces and even timescales. Doing it on your own rather than just reading about it is not time wasted. You will discover many things for yourself and perhaps make a real discovery by yourself.2 I suspect the soil around a long decayed wash towel would offer many fascinating things to study at twenty power.
Nature is a great partner to play with.
1 There are many good vendors. I have used Martin Microscope for lab and student microscopes and B&H Camera (for Nikon field microscopes). If you are mechanical and understand optics there are great bargains on eBay, but stay away unless you know what you are doing.
2 And you can make connections with other areas. The physics of rainbows and other natural phenomena were heavily studied a hundred years ago, but only sporadically since. Discoveries are still possible. It turns out most of the old models assume raindrops are spherical to make calculations easy enough. It is a good enough assumption most of the time, but real raindrops are hambuger bun or parachute shaped. Recently some computer science types performed more realistic calculations and discovered a bit more about how the world works.