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This video is all about James, who many of you know as our master of microscopes. He is the scientist, and the artist, behind just about everything we are able to see in our collective journey through the microcosmos.

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James: This is a video of me, falling in love. It’s only 9 seconds long, which is why we’re having to loop it again and again. I didn’t know that much about it compared to everything I know now. I barely even knew how to look at it properly.

But I knew that it was beautiful, and that I wanted to see more.

Hank: That is James, who many of you know as our master of microscopes. He is the scientist— and I would also say the artist— behind just about everything we are able to see in our collective journey through the microcosmos. Now some of you may know the story of how that journey got started. How I, Hank Green, saw James’ work online and then reached out to him to see if he would want to start this channel together.

When I saw the videos he posted, the thing that got me most excited was what I… didn’t know. I feel like most people have some vague sense that tardigrades are cool, and that single celled organisms, exist… but when I was watching James’ videos, I never knew what I was looking at. I didn’t have any categories to place these things into.

I felt like I was watching unnarrated footage from a nature documentary… of another planet, and that is a feeling that I liked quite a lot. Luckily, James decided to let us join in on his journey, sharing his videos and knowledge so that we could pull more people into the microcosmos. But James’ journey was already well underway before we found his content, and today we want to learn more about that path.

Because here on Journey to the Microcosmos, we’ve had the chance to explore the history of microscopy through the lives of former masters. But microscopy isn’t some ancient field contained only in dusty books. It is still evolving through the work of students and scientists and hobbyists who are finding new paths through microscopy today.

For James, love began maybe where you’d least expect it.

James: I was taking a lab course on wastewater treatment. Yes, I know it sounds disgusting, and it was. We had jars full of human waste, and then we had to look at those samples under the microscope to see what creatures were growing in there. And I thought it was going to be boring.

But then I put a drop of that slimy stuff onto a slide, placed the coverslip on top, and looked at it under the microscope. And it was like love at first sight. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

I remember seeing something that looked like a worm with a chainsaw mouth, which took me completely by surprise. I had no idea what I was looking at, but later I learned it was a rotifer. I went into the course knowing absolutely nothing about microbes, but I came out of it knowing that a few hours of microscopy in a class weren’t enough for me.

I had to get my own microscope, even though it was a big expense for a poor student. And while I waited for it to arrive, I spent hours and hours studying everything I could find about microbes.

Hank: Many of the organisms that we get to watch with James come from the Polish ponds close to where he lives. But the first sample he ever studied under his own microscope came from a puddle close to his home. And the video of peritrich ciliates that we opened the video with, that is the first thing he recorded on it.

James: I have so much from that first week of microscopy to look back on. I had learned enough about peritrich ciliates in my course work to identify them in my first slide. But other creatures were harder for me, like this little green guy. I spent all night looking up pictures of algae only to accidentally stumble on an organism I’d never heard of before called a desmid, and after hours of Googling, I realized that this was a desmid.

It’s funny remembering how much time it took me to realize I was looking at a desmid because they are super common. Finding one and identifying it is like identifying a cow in a field full of cows. But I found really unusual things in that first week of microscopy, like these giant purple amoeba that I haven’t been able to find again since.

And then there were odd things like these Thecamoeba that I didn’t even think were microbes at first. It was all so confusing to understand, but it became easier and easier the more I learned.

Hank: These early videos, you know, they might not be James’ finest work. He’s holding a camera close to the eyepiece with his hand, so sometimes things are a little shaky or blurry. So for those of us who have gotten used to the clarity of his footage, this is a different experience. But that’s what makes these older videos for me so fascinating.

The work James produces now is so incredible to look at that it’s easy to take the work going into them for granted, to assume that the microcosmos simply looks like that all of the time. The fascinating organisms he finds, the vivid tableaus they paint across our screen— those belong to the microcosmos. But they’re revealed to us through skills that James has been honing for hours and hours every day since he studied these first early slides.

Those are hours that build up into years of finding the right places to sample, of devising new strategies to house those samples and keep the organisms inside them alive. And then hours spent fine-tuning his skills on the microscope, understanding what techniques to use to bring different layers of the microcosmos to life.

James: I think microscopy provides me with creative ideas. Everything becomes a question of “Can I use this in microscopy?” For example, I heard once that hydras are often found in aquariums. So I went to some pet stores, bought some aquatic plants, and set up my first microbe tank. The aquatic plants came with some snails.

One day when I was looking at a snail under the microscope, I found this green hydra stretching-off of the snail’s shell! And that’s the beauty of the microcosmos, you can find the things you’re looking for in places you’d never expect to find them. And later, I created a YouTube channel to share some of my videos with my professor, and I realized that I love recording videos of microbes.

I’m kind of like a hoarder of microscopy footage.

Hank: James isn’t kidding about that… he estimates that he has more than 5000 hours of footage now. You could watch all ten Fast and Furious movies 269 times in 5,000 hours, and despite Vin Diesel’s best intentions, it would probably not produce nearly as much drama and heartbreak as what James has recorded.

James: The more I learned, the more excited I got about microbes. I contacted scientists to start volunteering in labs. I shared more videos on YouTube. I posted what I found on reddit.

And then one day, one of my videos went viral and that’s how Hank found me.

Hank: And sharing his work helped James find one of his most important collaborators and mentors: Dr. Genoveva Esteban, a professor in microbiology at Bournemouth University who has been studying ciliates for decades. Ciliates are single-celled eukaryotes known for the hair cilia that cover their bodies, and James had become particularly interested in them. Ciliates are a very, very diverse group of organisms, including everything from this Dactylochlamys to our favorite trumpet-like Stentors.

And it turned out that thanks to his persistent sampling, James had a real knack for finding very rare ciliates.

James: In one of my favorite places, I found this weird ciliate. I didn’t know that Professor Esteban was following my work, but she messaged me to ask me about the super rare microbe I was finding. And even though she has been in this field for so long, she had never seen a species like this. So we started texting about microbes, and over time, we talked more and more about rare microbes and the interesting ciliates we were finding.

And now we even publish papers together. When I found the extremely rare Legendrea loyezae, she was the first person I called. I remember pacing around in circles in my living room, telling her all about the tentacles extending.

Hank: There are always all sorts of lessons you can take from a story like James’. His persistence, his love for his craft, the joy of microscopy. But there’s something else too: community. So much of James’ story is about being alone, hours spent hunched over a microscope.

But so much of it is also about not being alone, about finding people who share his love for the microcosmos, and even people who don’t know yet that they share that love. There are people he talks to every day about microbes like Professor Esteban. There are people he regales in meetings with funny stories about the absurd lengths he’s gone to for his microbes, like those of us on the Journey to the Microcosmos team.

And there are even people he doesn’t know, like many of you. With every video, we get to see through his eyes a little bit and journey to another world, individuals brought together by a beam of light wielded by a master’s hands. Thank you for coming on this journey with us as we explore the unseen world that surrounds us.

If you are interested in beginning your own microscopy journey, you can head over to microcosmos.store where we’ve got all of the stuff you need to get started including microscopes, slides, and even a micro bumper sticker that says “Tardigrade Enthusiast” so you can let everyone around you know that if they’re out there searching for a person who shares their love of the Microcosmos, you are that person. And speaking of people who share that love, these on the screen right now are the names of our Patreon patrons. These are the folks who have made it possible for us to go on this wonderful journey that, I have been so happy to have been included on.

So thank you to all of them for being such a huge part of what we do. If you want to see more from our Master of Microscopes, James Weiss, you can check out Jam and Germs on Instagram. And if you want to see more from us, there's always a subscribe button somewhere nearby.