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Main page » Black Hole » National Geographic Interactive Jan. 2011

National Geographic Interactive Jan. 2011


One day in Delft in the fall of 1677, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, a cloth merchant who is said to have been the long-haired model for two paintings by Johannes Vermeer—“The Astronomer” and “The Geographer”—abruptly stopped what he was doing with his wife and rushed to his worktable. Cloth was Leeuwenhoek’s business but microscopy his passion. He’d had five children already by his first wife (though four had died in infancy), and fatherhood was not on his mind. “Before six beats of the pulse had intervened,” as he later wrote to the Royal Society of London, Leeuwenhoek was examining his perishable sample through a tiny magnifying glass. Its lens, no bigger than a small raindrop, magnified objects hundreds of times. Leeuwenhoek had made it himself; nobody else had one so powerful. The learned men in London were still trying to verify Leeuwenhoek’s earlier claims that unseen “animalcules” lived by the millions in a single drop of lake water and even in French wine. Now he had something more delicate to report: Human semen contained animalcules too. “Sometimes more than a thousand,” he wrote, “in an amount of material the size of a grain of sand.” Pressing the glass to his eye like a jeweler, Leeuwenhoek watched his own animalcules swim about, lashing their long tails. One imagines sunlight falling through leaded windows on a face lost in contemplation, as in the Vermeers. One feels for his wife.

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