Dr's Casebook: New quantum microscope that can see the impossible

The image of the coronavirus is known to everyone these days.

By Dr Keith Souter
Saturday, 19th June 2021, 4:45 pm
Microscopes have come a long way since the first version was introduced centuries ago. Photo: Getty Images
Microscopes have come a long way since the first version was introduced centuries ago. Photo: Getty Images

That incredibly small sphere covered in spikes, so reminiscent of a World War Two floating mine, is not visible through an ordinary microscope, but through an electron microscope.

Now a scientific leap is on the verge of taking us to view impossibly small biological structures using a quantum microscope.

It is debatable where the first spectacles lenses were made, but the cities of Pisa and Florence seem to have good claims back in the 13th century. The English friar, Roger Bacon, wrote about the use of lenses to enhance vision in his book Opus Majus in 1266.

The first use of lenses to see into the natural world was in the Netherlands in the late 16th century, but these were little more than magnifying glasses.

Then along came the great Italian scientist Galileo Galilei, who invented a compound microscope with a convex and a concave lens in 1609. He called his instrument ‘the occhiolino’ or the ‘little eye’.

An Italian doctor, Marcelo Malpighi, saw the potential of the microscope and began to study skin, blood vessels and the internal structure of organs like the liver.

Antonie van Leewenhoek, a Danish draper and amateur scientist, has a good claim to be the father of microbiology. He was the first person to see red blood cells and microrganisms like bacteria, protozoa and yeasts, which he called ‘animalcules’.

A contemporary of his, Robert Hooke, a physicist and curator of the Royal Society, produced an illustrated book, Micrographia in 1665. He was the first person to use the word ‘cell’ in a biological sense, since he likened its appearance to that of a monk’s cell, from the Latin cella, meaning small room.

The scientific compound microscope, which you may have used at school, was invented by Joseph Jackson Lister in 1830.

Then in 1931 Max Knoll and Ernst Ruska invented the electron microscope.

The latest development in microscopy comes from scientists at the University of Queensland in Australia.

They have developed a microscope powered by the science of quantum entanglement, an effect Albert Einstein described as ‘spooky interactions at a distance’. This technology will enhance the scope and range of technology like MRI machines used in medicine.

It is an incredible advancement.