How microscopy has influenced literary legends

Editorial

Rebecca Pool

Wednesday, December 18, 2019 - 13:00
Image: Microscopy features in more works of literature than you might think.
 
UK-based electron microscopist, Dr Peter Harris, University of Reading, has recently published an article entitled “Microscopy and literature”, which takes a look at how microscopy has influenced literary works.
 
Publishing in Endeavour, Harris shows, for example, that the publication of Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665) influenced Jonathan Swift’s book Gulliver’s Travels (1726).
 
As he points out, in the chapter 'A Voyage to Brobdingnag', Gulliver becomes a  kind of 'human microscope', observing with his naked eye the spots, pimples and freckles on the skins of the giant Brobdingnagians in minute detail.
 
Other examples of microscopy in literature are taken from works by Voltaire, George Eliot, H G Wells and D H Lawrence.
 
The inspiration for the article came from a conversation that Harris had with Professor Steven Matthews from the English Department at Reading.
 
While explaining that his job involves running the University’s electron microscopy facility, Matthews had said that the only reference to microscopes in literature that he could think of was in Lawrence’s “The Rainbow”, where the heroine, Ursula Brangwen, experiences a revelation about the meaning of life while peering down a microscope.
 
“This set me wondering whether there were any other examples of microscopy in literature,” says Harris. “It turns out that there are many more than you might think.”
 
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