It is always a challenge to present scientific discoveries to my students from the perspective of the original audiences, many of whom would have been brought up with a world view that explained natural phenomena without the need for the discovery that you want your students to understand. Worse still, they approach that same discovery with minds already adapted to the new vistas that the discovery revealed. The discovery of the microscope is a case in point. Who knew, before Anton van Leeuwenhoek in Holland showed us, that there was so much variety of life living in ponds that we cannot see with the naked eye? Who knew how much more about human anatomy could be revealed by examining our tissues at high magnification?
I have tried to convey some of this early wonder in the form of a conversation between Anton van Leeuwenhoek and his real-life friend, the painter Jan Vermeer but borrowing the style of the American comedian Bob Newhart. Bob Newhart is best known for a series of comic monologues in which he plays the role of ‘straight man’ to an off-screen subject. So, in the conversation that follows, we only hear the voice of Jan Vermeer on an afternoon in the mid-seventeenth century when his friend Anton van Leeuwenhoek has come around to show him his latest discovery…
Come on in, Anton, I’ve got something to show you … my latest painting. It’s a view of Delft and you can see your house and […] okay, I can see you’re not interested in my painting today […] you’ve got something to show me. What is it this time? Another of those peculiar beasts which are too small to see unless we peer through that weird magnifying contraption that you’ve invented. I must say, it was a bit of a shock to see that huge flea-like thing looming up in front of my face last time you brought it to the tavern … if it is one of those then I’ll have a quick peek but then let’s take it downstairs to show it to my mother-in-law. I’d like to see her face when she … no, you say, it is not something from the canal this time. Well, I’ve got an open mind, and there are all sorts of ponds and ditches that you tell me are also chock-full of amazing creatures so pass it here and let me take a peek. Okay, let me just move to the window and … adjust it until I can … OH MY GOD. AMAZING. You’ve done it again, Anton. There are hundreds of them … they remind me of tadpoles, but you are going to tell me that they are much much smaller … one fat round end and a long flexible tail, and they are all wriggling around, right in front of my eye. So what are they, and where do they come from? […]
Seamen? I can’t quite hear you properly, Anton. There was a cart going past just outside the window, but I thought you mentioned something about seamen. So, you went down to the quay and a seaman gave you something and you thought you would look at it under your magnifying thing, is that what happened? […] No? Don’t tell me a seaman came back from the Indies with some weird pustule and you had a poke at that? Please don’t tell me that’s what you did, because the last thing this family needs now is an untreatable skin disease. […] No? Well that is a relief but I think you are skirting around the subject, Anton. Not “seamen”. I must have misheard you, then. […] Not “seamen”? Sounds like “seamen”? Are you playing a game with me, Anton? Something that sounds like “seamen” but is nothing to do with ships or sailing? Nothing like a brain teaser, mid-afternoon, eh? Here I am, an impoverished north European painter trying to make the most of the limited daylight and along comes my friend Anton with his toy which, by coincidence, also needs my precious daylight to be used and now he’s asking me for a word that sounds like “seamen” but is not actually … no … I’m going to close my eyes and take a deep breath and then you are going to tell me that this is not what I think it is. […] It .. is . what .. I .. think .. it .. is.
A glazed earthenware tile from Delft from the 1640s, around the time that Jan Vermeer and Anton van Leeuwenhoek were active.
Okay. Okay. That really is quite a lot for me to take in. […] No, Anton, I agree with you that it is absolutely fascinating to think that human semen is so jammed full of these tiny little tadpole-like things all wriggling around, and that this does open up myriad possibilities for the study of human biology. But it does also raise some other, equally pertinent, questions. Tell me, Anton, if this is not too personal a question – this is, I presume, your semen […] it is. […] So was it obtained, single-handed, shall we say, or with technical assistance from Mrs van Leeuwenhoek? […] The latter? Okay. Again, Anton, excuse the personal nature of the question but if you show these to other people then they are sure to wonder, so it is better for you if you have an answer prepared. So you made sweet love to your wife and then, just as she was lying back in post-coital bliss, you leaped out of bed and reached for your magnifying contraption. And you are sure that, during all of this, Mrs van Leeuwenhoek was not feeling just a little bit … shall we say … “used”? […] She stormed off, you say? She had a point. Mrs Vermeer would have done just the same. Did you manage to show her these tadpole-like things when she calmed down? […] You did? […] And what did she say? […] She slapped you? Hard? And accused you of picking up strange infections from Greet, the well-endowed barmaid down at the tavern?
Well, it does beg a question, doesn’t it, Anton. […] Yes, I’m sure you’ve been asking it yourself. What exactly are these tadpole-shaped things in your semen? Hypothesis number one, the one that will ensure that the name of Anton van Leeuwenhoek is never forgotten, is that these minuscule wriggly things in your semen are the key to a full understanding of human existence. But, and let’s be absolutely honest now, Anton, hypothesis number two is that these are, as Mrs van Leeuwenhoek suggests, something that you picked up from Greet in an upstairs room at the tavern. Now I, as you often point out, am no more than a humble artist, unversed in the subtleties of science, but I would suggest – as a friend, I hasten to add – that maybe you need to unravel that particular mystery as quickly as possible. […] You’ve already thought of that, you say? […] And all you need, you say, is specimens of semen from a variety of subjects but especially from good family men who would never dream of cavorting with Greet in the upstairs room at the tavern. And … how do you intend to get those specimens .. let’s be honest, you need to know someone pretty well before you make such a personal request. […]
ABSOLUTELY NOT. Two reasons: first, Mrs Vermeer would make her own views very clear if I was to suggest it; and, second, the intimacy required for us to produce your specimen would be just that little bit harder to achieve if we knew that you were sitting outside the bedroom door clutching a swab and your magnifying contraption, poised to dash in as soon as we had finished. […] I’m glad you understand. So how, then, can a poor impoverished artist help in this endeavour? […] You are thinking more along the lines of the single-handed option for semen production, are you? And recruitment would be so much easier if your volunteers could keep themselves focussed on the job in hand. So to speak. I agree. Absolutely. […] A big picture of Greet naked? No, no, no, that’s not my style. […] No, I accept that Greet reading a letter or pouring milk into a jug is not particularly erotically charged but that is how I paint. Sorry. You could go to Antwerp and ask Peter Paul Rubens, perhaps? […] That’s too far to travel is it? What about Greet looking coyly out of the picture wearing a pair of pearl earrings? With a smouldering intensity that encapsulates a suppressed eroticism that few will ever surpass? […] No, no. You are probably right about that one. It would never work as a painting.