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We get a lot of questions about how we do what we do here on Journey to the Microcosmos. So, we thought that we'd answer a handful of frequently asked questions this week!

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It’s a pretty sweet gig that we’ve act as a tour guide through the microcosmos, and we’ve been fortunate to be joined by you fellow travelers, bringing all of your insightful thoughts, and very funny quips and also good questions in the comments section.

So for today, we wanted to turn it around and let some of the most frequent questions we’ve received guide this episode so we can talk more about how things work behind the scenes here, and how it impacts this journey. Many of you have asked how we find and care for our microscopic friends.

Well, James, our collector of microbes and master of microscopes, takes samples literally from everywhere he can, but his favorite spot is a park just next to his house. Collecting these samples requires some high tech equipment like...a selfie stick. Which James bought and converted into a portable sampling stick that lets him reach tough spots.

It’s lightweight. It’s collapsible, what else do you need! Once we have collected our specimens, we can’t ignore them, we have to take care of them, keep them alive and thriving.

For James, that means a few things: protecting them from environmental factors like direct sunlight or sudden changes in temperature, while also providing them with a nutritious setting that allows them to grow. This of course looks different for different microbes. For algae, James adds a couple drops of liquid plant fertilizer into the water and gives them some natural sunlight.

But heterotrophs like ciliates and flagellates, they need food, and James has a number of different homemade solutions that provide that sustenance. From nearly the beginning of microbe hunting, a favorite food has been a hay infusion, and that is something that James uses as well. It's basically just...boiled hay.

Other times, he might sprinkle some cooked rice grains into the sample, or add drops of milk. It’s a whole menu designed to suit different organisms, but no matter what they demand, the goal is the same: to make sure we’re taking care of our little pond buddies. Now to the most frequent question of all, our equipment.

When it comes time to get a closer look at our cultures, we’ve used two different microscopes to film the footage you’ve seen on this channel. The first one is a microscope that James cobbled together from various parts for just under $200, creating hundreds of hours of recorded footage that we still use. So this one is a microcosmos original.

You can’t buy it, there is only one, and there is no brand name. After we launched our channel, James got a sponsorship from a microscope company—maybe the most niche (and, we think, one of the coolest) sponsorships you can get—and since then, he’s used a Motic BA310 microscope and a Fujifilm X-T3 camera. With this microscope, we’ve been able to expand on the kind of footage we can show thanks to the different types of light we can use, like these paramecia that we observed under polarized light.

We’re very excited about all the different forms of light you can use with this microscope and what they reveal about the microcosmos, and you will see more of that in future episodes. Another common do we prepare and observe our do we actually get a look at these organisms? Well, the procedure is fairly similar each time.

We first take a drop from our samples and place that on a glass slide, and then we cover that drop with another super-thin piece of glass called a coverslip. That creates an extremely thin film of water between those two pieces of glass, and that is what we observe when we make our videos. Some of you have asked why we can see microbes moving left, right, up, and down, but they never seem to move towards or away from us.

Of course, microbes live in a three dimensional universe, but our footage does not always reflect that because of how microscopes work. The high magnification objectives that we use have a low depth of field, meaning the area that is in focus is a very thin slice. So we force the microcosmos into a two dimensional space, this very thin area between the two pieces of glass.

Now sometimes we actually make that area thicker for larger organisms by putting some stuff under the coverslip. Maybe it’s some decaying plant matter or some tiny grains of sand. In those cases, however, it becomes easier for those organisms to wander out of focus.

Our microscope also shapes the way we observe the color of these organisms, or often, what seems to be the lack thereof. We’ve been asked why so many of them are transparent, and, well, transparency comes down to two things. First, how much light there is, and second how much stuff there is blocking that light.

In the case of microscopic observation...there’s a lot of light, and the bodies are tiny. Some of these organisms just lack the pigments that would make them colorful. But for others, the light source in the microscope is just too strong, overpowering their pigments so they appear, to our eyes, transparent.

And you would be transparent too if you were only a few microns thick. Some of you also want to know whether we use stains to create our footage. Stains are a common laboratory and medical technique that uses dyes to bind to different parts of cells and thus help visualize their components and processes.

While they are often beautiful and very informative, stains can also be harmful to cells, potentially even killing them so we have chosen to keep the microorganisms un-stained. There have also been questions about what our magnification notes mean. Those 100x’s and 200x’s you see up in the corner.

Those numbers refer specifically to the magnification created by the microscope, not how much larger the image is as it appears on your screen, relative to its actual size. Now that is a subtle difference, but subtle differences can be very important. After all, some of you are watching this on your phones, others are watching on a computer screen, others might be watching on a big 70” flat screen on your wall and if you are, that’s awesome.

Thank you. We, however, do not know what size device you’re watching this on, but you’re seeing the same 100x in the corner because that describes the optics of the microscope, not the size of the screen you’re using to watch YouTube videos. To fix this, we’ve gotten a lot of comments asking us to use a scale bar instead of the magnification, and we’ve been thinking about non-intrusive ways of implementing that.

And finally, we’ve had questions about how real-time our footage is. We always make sure to note whether the footage we’re showing has been sped up. Sometimes the microbes we show you are super chill and relaxed, and sometimes, they are very much not chill, moving faster than many of us might expect.

We’re asked sometimes whether any particular piece of footage has been sped up, and rest assured that unless we’ve noted it, that very active microbe is just very active. I mean, calm down friend. You can take a breather.

And so can all of us every once in a while. Thank you so much for all of your questions and all your comments over these months. We hope that by answering them, you find new things to ponder and ask us about the microcosmos.

A question that doesn’t pose new questions is no question at all. And if, say, you are wondering whether this channel reminds us of the cell stage in the game Spore…the answer is of course yes, yes it very much does. Thank you for coming on this journey with us as we explore the unseen world that surrounds us.

We also just recently launched our very first piece of microcosmos merch! I'm wearing it right now, though you cannot see that, because there are no cameras on me, but I promise I am. It's a Stentor Coeruleus pin, and the image of the Stentor on the pin is roughly 40x the size of what a real-world Stentor coeruleus is,.

So when people see it, you can tell them that. And you can own this little piece of the microcosmos, there's a link, in the description. Thank you so much to all of our patrons on Patreon who make it possible for us to do this weird thing that we love doing.

And if you want to see more from our Master of Microscopes James, you can check out Jam and Germs on Instagram. And, of course, if you want to subscribe to Journey to the Microcosmos, I bet you can figure out how to do that.