________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 7 . . . . November 23, 2007


Microcosmos: Discovering the World Through Microscopic Images From 20 X to Over 22 Million X Magnification.

Brandon Broll. Photos supplied by The Science Photo Library.
Richmond Hill, ON: Firefly Books, 2007.
422 pp., hardcover, $29.95.
ISBN 978-1-55407-237-8.

Subject Headings:
Nature photography.
Photography-Scientific applications.

Grades 8 and up / Ages 13 and up.

Review by Barbara McMillan.

*** /4

Brandon Broll has created a visually stunning book featuring “the beauty of what is too small to see with the naked eye” (p. 4). Using just over two hundred stock photographs taken by more than 29 light and electron microscopists, Broll offers readers an opportunity to see the hidden outer surface, and, in some cases, the internal structure of objects and organisms that can be found in the world around us or inside our bodies.

     Microcosmos is divided into six sections organized by the specimens photographed. The book begins with a section titled “Mircoorganisms” that includes 24 images of viruses and single-celled protozoa, algae (phytoplankton), bacteria, and white blood cells (macrophages). The second section, “Botanics,” features 41 images of photosynthetic diatoms, primitive plants and fungi that reproduce by spores, and flowering plants that produce seeds. The third and largest section is titled, “Human Body.” Here, Broll has arranged 49 images of cells, muscle fibres, the eye and tongue, capillaries and blood vessels, and the linings of the esophagus, duodenum, bile duct, and intestines. Section five, “Zoology,” begins with the star-like image of a sponge spicule and  ends with a photograph of a bird’s jaw socket. Between these two are 30 images of the eggs, wing scales, and tongue of butterflies, the feet of insects and a gecko, feathers, the skins of a shark and of a snake, house dust, and a variety of plant and animal pests (mosquito, tick, dust mite, blow fly, fluke, aphid, head louse, and  wasp). The fifth section, “Minerals,” consists of 22 images of crystals. Included in this category are photographs of snowflakes, vitamins, tungsten, sugar, salts, a rusty nail, and the scales that build-up inside of teakettles. The final section, “Technology,” features images of human-made materials and objects. The 35 images selected for this section range from the surface of a shoe insole, surgical thread, and cut hair on the blades of a razor to a cracked compact disc, a wood ant holding a silicon microchip in its jaws, and carbon nanotubes.

internal art

     All images are printed in colour and fill the right hand side of a two-page spread. The upper half of the page to the left of each image includes the name of the material or organism pictured and one to six sentences of information. The lower half of the page tells you more precisely what you see in the image, including the chemical formula or Latin scientific name, and the number of times it has been magnified. Broll, for example, begins the book with a scanning electron microscope image of seven “Bresslauides ciliate protozoa.” These are fuzzy looking ovoid shapes, 5-7 centimetres in length, brown to blue-grey in colour with white hairs that are shown on a very black background. The text accompanying the image is as follows:

THESE TINY SINGLE-CELLED organisms are found both in water and soil. Their bodies are covered in short microscopic hairs (cilia) used for locomotion. They feed on bacteria and decaying organic matter, helping to clean the soil or water, which they filter through specialized cilia in their primitive mouths known as buccal cavities  (seen as a slit). This is a very common species of ciliate often found in large groups.

     The print on the lower half of the page tells the reader that the image is of “a group of ciliate protozoa (Bresslauides discoideus) magnified 12000 times, or 12000 X.”

     The 203 photomicrographs featured in Microcosmos were taken using light microscopes, transmission electron microscopes, or a scanning electron microscopes. The majority, however, are images from scanning electron microscopes, and this is the reason the book is visually stunning. As Broll explains in the forward, light microscopes and transmission electron microscopes require that materials “be sliced thinly, or trapped under glass” before being  examined. In contrast, the scanning electron microscope reveals “a world familiar to the way we naturally see things, a world with outer surfaces and in three dimensions” (p. 4). And so we see an image of “eyelash hairs growing from the surface of human skin” that have the appearance of sprouting green onions in garden soil, mites on a honeybee that look like blue aphids on a hairy leaf, and crystals of human serum albumin forming a clot over a wound that resemble rectangular pieces of thinly layered milk chocolate on a bed of green lettuce. In all cases, the black-and-white photomicrographs have been coloured, and, as Broll makes clear, the colours are not added to mimic real life colour but to make “a complicated picture easier to understand” (p. 5). Nonetheless, some of the images have a clarity and subtlety that seems quite natural and beautiful while others exaggerate distinctions by using a palette of jellybean hues.

     Anyone who is interested in seeing how things appear when magnified will find Microcosmos fascinating. For this reason, I would share this book’s contents with children much younger than I have indicated above. Although they may not know what viruses, lung bronchiole, and plant xylem are and cannot read the text, they will be awestruck by the jumping spider’s eyes, the sugar and salt crystals, the metal blade of a knife, the pollen sticking to a bee’s leg, and the intricate shapes of tiny organisms that live in Earth’s oceans.


Barbara McMillan is a professor of early years science education in the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.

Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.