Since I have been writing about microbial life in the soil for a couple of years now, I thought it was high time that I bear down on it and get a digital microscope. I was very excited to find one as a gift for my birthday but have to admit that setting it up was a little intimidating. So I put that off until recently.
I want to note here that you can expect a lot of trial and error when learning to take control of your own crop research. So far I have a lot of experience in the trial and error area. But that makes any success much more enjoyable. I am able to include a picture in this article because I ultimately was able to get the microscope going and capture a picture of some compost wildlife. There may be a lot more educational and entertainment value in the error part.
The manual directs that you use a specific kind of charger for a specific time to get the microscope going. Luckily I have lots of chargers lying around related to dead or defunct cell phones, flash lights etc. So not a problem yet. The next instruction is to turn on the microscope and then plug the USB connection into your computer. You also have to download some software that will display what the microscope sees. I managed to screw this up by not turning on the microscope before plugging it into the computer. If all else fails, read the instructions!
Once the device is plugged in, the computer scrambles to find a driver for it. This might take awhile. Don’t panic, take a break. Then you need to open the software. I did that and had a very clear live picture of my face. Evidently the software picks up the first camera it finds on the computer, in this case my external camera for Zoom meetings. Ok start over. I unplugged the Zoom camera. That worked and I could see fuzzy stuff. I figured out that on the computer there is no way to automatically zoom into focus. There is a dial on the microscope to do that – but then you are moving the microscope just a tiny bit. It turns out that a tiny bit is a big deal on a microscope. I gave up for the day and parked the software on my desktop.
For the next couple of days I scrambled looking for things to examine with the microscope. They included a blue opal, some cat hair and some holographic paper. Things were starting to be fun. I dug some compost out of the middle of the pile, which has a temperature of 43° even at 13° air temperature. Not much action there, so I left it to warm up.
The next day a breaker tripped and cut off all the power to the office. The computer seemed to recover, but the microscope would not work anymore. After trying several flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants ideas, I dug deeper into why my computer was no longer talking to the microscope. I did mention that it is made in China. Evidently Windows doesn’t speak Chinese. It reported that it couldn’t find the software driver for the microscope. Then it offered to fix the problem. The problem started to get worse. I enabled “automatic updates”. They seemed to be stalled in the cloud somewhere. Windows identified “USB driver error (code 10)”.
I Googled “USB driver error (code 10)”. There was a solution that seemed to be free. I downloaded it and the program ran well. It identified hundreds of problems with my computer and offered to fix them. I clicked the button to do that and was transferred to a website where I needed to pay to fix the problems. Well okay, I had gone this far. $30 seemed like a small price to pay to fix hundreds of problems. I entered the key I had paid for and the program started to work. It hung up saying it couldn’t work while Windows was doing updates. Egad. Windows had finally started to do updates.
I closed the fix everything program and let the updates go on. They finished and said I needed to reboot the computer to finish the process. The computer shut down and started up again. But it didn’t make it. It offered to fix the startup problems and start. It didn’t make it again. I was getting desperate. I found an option to reset the computer to a previous version. Okay, it used to work right?
It churned for a while getting back to the previous version. I left to write Christmas cards. Somehow I was just not in the mood. I came back to the computer to see a message that it had failed to restore the previous version. I really don’t have much hair left on top or I would have pulled it out. I clicked a button marked “cancel” while trying to figure out who could repair this computer. Miraculously, the computer came back on looking and acting almost like it used to. I quit while I was ahead.
No one said citizen science would be easy. I started out today thinking that I might be able to see yeast in action. I have a winery after all. Back in the office I found a piece of wood I had brought in to test the wine was covered with ants. Trying to make the best of a bad situation I tried to get the ants under the microscope. Ants may look like they are moving slowly. Under a microscope they might as well be race cars. I couldn’t focus on them let alone take a picture. Back to the yeast. I got some really pretty pictures of yeast bubbles. The yeast itself seemed to be wavering but not clearly growing. Pretty wasn’t cutting it. Some stuff is just too small for this microscope.
As a last gasp, I put some now-warm compost under the scope. It looked like huge wet wood chips. Then I noticed something moving. I took a bunch of pictures mostly failing to get a clear image. It was a tiny bug like a beetle but white.
Thousands of different little creatures can live in compost. I tried a crazy search in Google, something like “tiny bugs in compost”. Amazingly it came up with ideas that included mites. I had never really seen a mite but it seemed likely. Soon I was looking at pages about oribatid mites. They look a lot like my compost bug and live mostly on the litter on a forest floor. There are over 12,000 kinds. Close enough!
So in Article 1 we learned that citizen science is not that easy; that you might find help on the Internet or not and that it’s really pretty cool if it finally works. Next month I’ll try to use my new digital PH meter. Wish me luck.