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It’s a small world

Posted by joeabbott on October 12, 2014

M&M FaceI like the microscopic world. I’m not sure if it’s the sense of surprise at how different everyday items look when magnified or if there’s something else going on; but I sure like it.

A few years back, Suzy got me a USB camera microscope for my birthday … I love it. And yet, it sits largely unused in the box it came in here on my desk. Yes, it’s at my elbow in case I need to pull it out for a minute investigation, but I don’t often do that. I’m not sure why I don’t use it more but today, as part of my “clean off my desk” day, I made use of it.

While I may not use it on a regular basis, I do collect specimens with which to train the tool on it when I get around to it. Today I looked at beard hair, M&Ms, a rock, an old screw, and even a deformed pellet from an air rifle. There are stories to go with each item … some stories will be better than others … so let’s take a look at common things in a new way and hear how they came to be on my desk.

Joe turns 50

My 50th birthday was last year and it coincided with the year Microsoft shipped the Xbox One. As part of that team, I had stopped shaving. It was part team morale, part being goofy, part saving a fraction of my morning, but I vowed not to shave until we shipped! It was all bravado, however, as I shaved a couple weeks before we shipped, in order to celebrate my 50th birthday with my family and showing up in pictures as I normally do: sans beard.

P1040566But, I saved that beard hair. Why? Well, to look at it under a microscope, of course!


The greying of my hair was never more evident than when it was part of a lot of other hair … and, as someone who shaves his head, it’s not often you get to appreciate the amount of “salt” in that salt-and-pepper look. And then there was the coarseness of the whole thing. Hairs so stout I needed a tool with “surgical steel” components!

What I learned from taking a look at beard hair under a microscope is that you get a lot of minute specs of skin (dander, dare I say) mixed in with it … but it’s otherwise an odd mat of short black and white strands. Unimpressive.

M&MsM&M wish2M&M wish

The second thing I trained the microscope on was the M&Ms that Suzy had made for my special day: candies with my picture on them and others with tiny slogans and phrases. The folks at the M&M\Mars company have done right by allowing you to print just about anything you want (as long as you want to say something very short) on their candies. And then, that picture! It was a lot of fun to enjoy then and, while the year since my last birthday haven’t done them any favors, they held up reasonably well.

A shot in the back

I live in a town that doesn’t allow the discharge of guns of any sort within the city limits. But, as a budding know-it-all who poo-poos those laws that don’t seem to make sense to me, I thought “what harm would shooting a bb gun in my own backyard do anyone”? And so I did. Once.

Our yard has a steep hill in the back and, from my deck it’s a rise of about 40’ to the back fence. I set a 3/4” thick piece of plywood in the middle of the yard, up against a birdhouse some 60’ or so from the house; I then sat in a chair on the deck just outside the sliding door. I then trained my air rifle on the plywood and gave a squeeze of the trigger. Now, I know little to nothing about guns of any sort, air rifles or real firearms, but I do know that I heard a distinct retort, a small bang as the pellet hit the plywood, and was then stunned as there was a small pop behind me as the deflected pellet hit the house not a foot to my left.


While I applauded how perpendicular I’d set the plywood up, I was surprised enough by how far that pellet traveled, how it interacted with the plywood (bouncing, not sinking in) and then at it hitting a target just a foot or so from me. From that point I vowed not to fire it in the backyard again. While I’ll be a scofflaw when I can’t appreciate the rationale for a policy, I won’t be stupid in the face of real risks. And injuring a person or animal because I want to get all red neck in my backyard is just that sort of risk.

Rocks are cool

Virtually every hike I go on, a rock comes home with me. Some have great texture, some are shaped interestingly, and a few are just keepsakes from my travels. I don’t remember each rock and each hike, but they’re fun to bring home to Suzy and color the aspects of my time on the trail.


On one hike, I’m not sure where, I found a piece of white quartz that had interesting splotches coloring it. When I first saw it, I thought there may be small flakes of gold stuck to it but, on putting it under the microscope, they look more to be commonplace lichen. And yet, they do look neat!

Modern manufacturing

In my woodworking, I use screws that have a Robertson head; that’s a square recess which allows the screwdriver to maintain a stronger fit and drive. However, I got a surprise when I pulled on screw from the box and found it had no threads! Yup, quality control at the McFeely company let me down. It was just one screw from a pound box, so I didn’t have problems with it, but I did take pictures for my blog. It’s rather anticlimactic, but interesting nonetheless.


Something to chew on

The sins of my youth and not listening to my mother’s advice about brushing my teeth have caught up to me. I have a dental crown on more than one molar and, when I was getting the temp removed so they could put on the permanent crown, I requested the pieces of the temp. Why? Not sure but I thought it would be interesting.


The stuff of your teeth, enamel, is the material they’re replacing, so I thought the temp tooth would be super hard, amazing stuff. While it is plenty rigid and hard, it’s less impressive than I thought it would be and, truth be told, I lost interest in trying to put the parts together jigsaw style. Here for you, however, is the pile of shards the dental hygienist provided for me. On one part, you can see where the dentist had scored the outside to encourage it to break when he was removing it!

Mason Bee CocoonA bee experiment

The last item in my motley collection of tiny things to photograph is a small cocoon left by some mason bees my wife had grew\nurtured\shepherded this year. The mason bee looks like a small housefly and is an early-year pollinator. They signal the spring season and immediately upon coming out of their own cocoons, they start gathering materials for the next years progeny. The mason bee will find a small crack or, in the case of bees you’re providing homes for, tubes or spaces in wood, and will then seal the end, lay the egg, and then seal it off and lay another egg … repeating until it fills the tube.

A fascinating and beneficial creature, we’ll likely keep them again next year (we rented our first batch) but here’s a picture of a mason bee’s cocoon after it’s crawled out.


That’s it!

Every time I do something like this, take a view of things up close, I vow to do it again more frequently the next time. I’m not sure about “the next time” but I enjoyed this one. Thanks for coming along!


One Response to “It’s a small world”

  1. momma said

    Most interesting. Sometime compare the sand in a few different lakes out there. Remember the framed enlarged Grains of Sand picture in my spare bedroom? So interesting that every lake’s sand differs so much from another’s. Momma
    (and you had such a nice 19th Century look with the beard….)

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