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"It is our task today to persuade others that it does indeed matter, not for any immediate benefit, but for the sake of curiosity and its unknowable contribution to the sum of human knowledge and well-being."


The microscope has been around since the 1500s, but the one that really launched microscopy, our understanding of microorganisms and sperm was designed by Antonie von Leeuwenhoek, spelled 21 different ways across documents in his lifetime.  Leeuwenhoek was born in the Netherlands, Holland, the small country that borders Belgium and Germany known for legal prostitution, tulips, and Anne Frank.

In the 1600s when our story takes place, the Netherlands was bustling in its golden age of arts and science.  There was the pendulum clock, (?~0:45) cuisine, "Girl With a Pearl Earring".  Leeuwenhoek was a draper, someone who sells fabric.  He wanted to get a closer look at the clock.  Out of curiosity, he started to mess around with glass to magnify the fibers.  He wanted to know what's the thread count?  Leeuwenhoek wasn't a trained scientist.  He didn't speak Latin, the language of scholars, but he was curious.  With limited information, he experimented with different techniques to manipulate glass and increase visibility.  

Leeuwenhoek's microscope consisted of two brass plates the size of a thumb that held what was essentially a glass bead here in this little circle between them.  In front of the lens, there was this pin to put a droplet of pond water or saliva, etc on, and this little paddle could be turned to clarify the image.  Leeuwenhoek would face the light and hold the microscope as close to his eye as he could to discover what he called diertjes, 'dier' meaning animal and 'tjes' making it tiny animals.  This word was translated as 'animal cules' and then later understood as microbes, 'cause they're not animals.  

How do we get to sperm?  Well.  Leeuwenhoek had gone way past textiles to mold and bees and lice and water and all these microorganisms within them.  He would write letters to the royal society, this big scientific institution in London, sending them drawings describing his findings, and they were like, hm, impressive, but can we believe this Dutch draper claiming to see animals invisible to the naked eye?  Leeuwenhoek kept writing, here's something that I found, here's something that I found, something that I found, look at this!  He wrote 190 letters detailing his research methodology and findings.

The Royal Society published a lot of this work, but they were still skeptical.  Eventually, they asked him to show his concealed microscopes to notable scientists and clergy, priests.  Prove yourself, Leeuwenhoek.  He reluctantly agreed, and after a few tries with these little lenses, the judges determined yep, yep, we see what you see.

Leeuwenhoek was given the go-ahead to be this amazing person, one of the most curious, innovative, non-scientist scientists of his time.  I remember seeing a replica of his microscope at an exhibit in the San Francisco airport of all places.  At the time, I had no idea how it worked, but I thought it was amazing that this small instrument catapulted our understanding of all these miniscule engineers, taking care of us, doing harm to us.  Bacteria, viruses, white blood cells.  

I wanted to know more so I looked up Leeuwenhoek and learned that the most interesting fact, to me, of course, is that this microscope, one of his, supplied our first view of sperm.  Sperm!  Instantly, the microscope was not only a symbol of curiosity to me, it was a symbol of my freedom as someone with a uterus who has sex with sperm-makers to seek higher education.

Without the knowledge of spermatozoa, sperm, it would be really difficult to prevent pregnancy.  Before Leeuwenhoek, babies were thought to come from seminal vapors, a gas wafted off the semen and you were pregnant.  The discovery of sperm made it possible for me to have a life where I can prioritize my education and career, one where I can plan family.  I can choose if, when, how I want to become a parent.  I love it so much, I got it tattooed on my arm to remind me of all these great things: curiosity, sexuality because of spermatozoa, and then my liberties as a human.  Aww.

When people asked, is that some sort of BDSM paddle, I would say, it's one of the first microscopes.  Antonie von Leeuwenhoek used it to see red blood cells and sperm for the first time.  I would continue, I imagine him in his lab, excited to try it out, so he pricked his finger and masturbated.  Masturbated, then pricked his finger?  One person I told this story to corrected me, gently explaining that Leeuwenhoek collected the semen from intercourse.  Masturbation at that time was considered unholy.  Oh, right.

I hadn't put it together that in 1677 when sperm was seen for the very first time that masturbation, any sexual expression outside of marriage, was taboo.  What else didn't I know about the ink permanently in my body?  I did a deep dive.  Turns out, Leeuwenhoek had been studying many different specimens before he got to sperm.  He had become renowned for micrology, father of the field, finally respected.

Enter (?~4:36), a medical student who sought out Leeuwenhoek's experience to examine pus-y semen.  Supposedly.  Again, I can't say how the 17th century went down, but it sounds like (?~4:46)'s friend "lain with an unclean woman" and wanted to use Leeuwenhoek's microscope. (?~4:51) looked and saw sperm.  Leeuwenhoek confirmed (?~4:54)'s observation by gathering semen from intercourse with his wife Cornelia.  Thank you, Cornelia.  

"Immediately after ejaculation, I have seen so great a number that I judge million of them would not equal in size a large grain of sand.  They were furnished with a thin tail, about 5 or 6 times as long as the body, and very transparent, and with the thickness of about 1/25th that of the body.  They moved forward owing to the motion of their tails like that of a snake or an eel swimming in water, but in the somewhat thicker substance, they would lash their tails at least 8 or 10 times before they could advance a hair's breadth."  

Millions of semen animalcules.  Spermatozoa.  Seed animals.  Even though they're not animals.  Leeuwenhoek wrote the Royal Society as usual, this time with special care.  "What I investigate is only what, without sinfully defiling myself, remains as a residue after conjugal coitus."  I didn't masturbate, my investigation is from sex!  "If your lordship should consider that these observations may disgust or scandalize, regard them as private and to publish or destroy them as your lordship thinks fit."  If that grosses you out in any way, feel free to ignore one of the most important scientific discoveries ever.  

The Royal Society didn't ignore it, at least not on morality.  Instead, they were like, hey, uh, we'd like to see horse semen and dog semen, and then they held off announcing his contribution to science for almost two years!  At least they eventually published it and we know now.  We know that we are made up of many, many organisms, vast microcosms of them that are helpful and harmful.  We know not all life is created from an egg nor is it all created from a sperm.  We know formal training isn't needed to be curious or to make a profound impact, and we know what that art is on Lindsay's arm!

Stay curious.

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Leeuwenhoek--dook?  Ook?  I don't know why this is so hard.  No!  Leeuwenhoek (?~7:22), Leeuwenhoek.  Hahaha!  And you were pregnant.