31 March 2010

December 4, 1703: Leeuwenhoek lets his imagination run wild

In a letter1 to the Royal Society of London written on December 4, 1703, Dutch microscopist Antony van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) gave an account of his microscopical examinations of sand grains. Leeuwenhoek starts off by declaring that no 2 sand grains are identical:

I remember I have formerly affirmed of Sand, that you cannot find in any quantity whatsoever two Particles thereof, that are entirely like each other, and tho perhaps in their first Configuration they might be alike, yet at present they are exceeding different...
Having established that basic fact, he goes on to give descriptions and drawings of several sand grains he had observed with his microscope. One particular grain was exceptional:
In the said Sand, which is describ'd by GHIKL, you may see not only, as it were, a ruined Temple, but in the corner of it GHI appear two images of humane shape, kneeling, and extending their Arms to an Altar, that seems to stand at a little distance from them...
Here is Leeuwenhoek's drawing of the sand grain with a temple:

What is curious is that Leeuwenhoek offers no explanation whatsoever of how an image of a temple complete with worshipers could have been on a tiny sand grain that he had randomly selected from among numerous grains. It is also not clear if he believed what he thought he saw was a real image or some cracks and lines on the sand grain that resembled the picture of a temple.

He may very well have believed that there was an actual temple drawing on that particular sand grain. This is supported by his conclusion that all sand grains had been created when earth was created:
From these Observations, I imagined that almost all the Sand on the whole Earth have preserved the figure that was given to it at the Creation...and so have remained what they were originally; saving that by their frequent collisions with other bodies their first figure may be something impaired...
His phrase "first Configuration" in the opening quote from his letter, therefore, refers to the shapes of sand grains "at the Creation". Thus, it is perhaps expected that Leeuwenhoek was not too surprised to find sacred images etched on sand grains left over from his god's handiwork.

Obviously, Leeuwenhoek didn't understand that sand continuously forms from the disintegration of rocks.

1Part of a Letter from Mr Anthony van Leuwenhoek, F. R. S. concerning the Figures of Sand. Philosophical Transactions 1704 24:1537-1555.

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