Journeys through Inner Space

Alan Stern (center) and members of the New Horizons science team react to seeing new images of Pluto for the first time. Credit: Michael SoluriSome of the most memorable media images of 2015 came from NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto. Although the images of Pluto were spectacular, those that really stuck in my memory were those of the scientists themselves as they watched the images appear on their monitors, beamed back to earth by New Horizons over 3 billion miles of intervening space. The looks on their faces speak volumes. New Horizons launched in 2006 and I suppose that many of those scientists must have been anticipating these pictures for the intervening 9 years - wondering and imagining what they would see. But our imaginations can never do justice to the wonders of the universe; you can see it in their faces.

Just before Christmas I was corresponding by email with a couple of friends and former colleagues from my time in Merseyside; Ben Deed, who I worked with at Merseyside BioBank LERC, and Thom Dallimore, who I first met through the Lancashire Wildlife Trust. Our common interest, and the subject of our correspondence, was springtails - Collembola.

Members of the New Horizons science team react to seeing the spacecraft's last and sharpest image of Pluto. Credit: Bill Ingalls/NASABen now runs Merseyside BioBank and Thom is a PhD student at the Biosciences department at Edge Hill University and together they have been kicking ideas around for a while about invigorating Springtail recording in Lancashire. Meanwhile in Shropshire, Charlie and I have been working with Pete Boardman (formerly of FSC and now an invertebrate specialist with Natural England's Field Unit) to get a new Shropshire Springtail Atlas project off the ground. Thom, Ben and I all live in Lancashire and we agreed that it would be a great idea for the three of us to get together before Christmas for a bit of a social and a chat about Springtails and ways in which we might work together. Thom dropped this little nugget into one of his emails:

If you guys head over this way, I could show you the Scanning Electron Microscope in action. It gets the imagination going that’s for sure.

Well that was a done deal then. Neither Ben or I had ever seen a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) in action. On the day in question, Ben and I arrived at the Biosciences department at Edge Hill in the evening. Most of the staff had gone home but Thom was there to meet us. During our visit, he showed us around some of the facilities of the Biosciences department which were amazing; it's clear that Biosciences at Edge Hill is going places, but he wasted little time before taking us to see his pride and joy - the SEM!

I had imagined that preparing a sample to view under the SEM would be a time-consuming and fiddly job. I thought that Thom would say "here's one I prepared earlier". But instead he went to a cabinet where he stores some of his samples, whipped out a random springtail (which turned out to be Orchesella villosa) and in less than 5 minutes he had it ready to be viewed in the SEM. The preparation simply involved mounting it on a little stage and then using an amazing machine to coat it in gold which took only a couple of minutes. The resulting gold coating on our little Orchesella villosa was just a few nanometres thick and would enable the SEM to resolve the most minute topographic details.

Orchesella villosa under the SEM. Credit: Thom Dallimore/Edge Hill UniversityOnce in the SEM, the image of our springtail quickly materialised on the screen in front of us. For me and Ben, it was our Pluto moment; the first of many. As Ben and I looked at the springtail on our monitor, it was hard to shake the impression that we were looking at a static image rather than a live one; so that as Thom kept zooming in closer and closer still, our brains expected the image the pixelate - as it would if we were viewing a static image on a computer. But Thom zoomed in and the image didn't pixelate. He zoomed again - still no pixelation. And so it went on, crystal clear detail upon detail; hairs upon hairs upon hairs.

Thom - the intrepid pilot of the SEM, our inner space probe - took us on a roller-coaster ride around the springtail, over mountains that were, in fact, individual occelli, and into valleys that were no more than wrinkles in its cuticle. The surface of the cuticle of our springtail was as strange to my eyes as the surface of Pluto was to the NASA scientists (see the banner image). We saw minute structures, that we had struggled to see at all with the most powerful optical microscopes available to us, filling the whole monitor. And then we would zoom in again and see stuff that was beyond our imagining.

Orchesella villosa head setae. Credit: Thom Dallimore/Edge Hill UniversityThom was right, it did get the imagination going and over a pint in the pub we bounced around many ideas about recording springtails which fed and grew on the excitement that had been generated by that SEM.

When I was first getting into spiders, one of the things which I loved about them - particularly the tiny money spiders - was that people see them all the time and yet they never really see them. But if you put these tiny money spiders under a microscope they start to resolve into their 200+ species - sometimes in spectacular and fantastic fashion. Pete Boardman has said that despite many years studying invertebrates he has had to learn to look differently - at a different scale - to even see many of the species of springtail which now fascinate him.

I don't know what you call the space that resolves itself when you look extremely carefully at tiny things and when your imagination starts to operate at a different scale, filling your mind with universes that are microns across. I want to call it near space, but apparently that's reserved for the "stratosphere, mesosphere, and the lower thermosphere". Perhaps inner space will do and although one definition has this as "the region between the earth and outer space, or below the surface of the sea", another has it as "the part of the mind not normally accessible to consciousness". That'll do. 

Further information

For more information on the Tom.bio project, visit the Tom.bio homepage. Details of Tom.bio invertebrate ID events can be found on our training calendar. For more information on other FSC natural history courses, check out our 2016 FSC field courses