Leeuwenhoek's Lucky Break

Falkowski, P.
Discover (magazine)
June 2015
Kalmbach Publishing Co.

Full title

Leeuwenhoek's Lucky Break: How a Dutch fabric-maker became the father of microbiology

Available online at DiscoverMagazine.com

Some inaccuracies:

Rather than using two lenses, Leeuwenhoek pulled hot glass rods to form threads and then reheated the threads to form small glass spheres.

That was one method, which probably made the most powerful lenses. However, none of the surviving lense are spheres. They are bi-convex lenses.

He used the best Venetian glass and had to polish the lenses somehow. The exact technique he used was a secret he never revealed.

As a commenter on the article's web page notes about the technique of "pull, break, and briefly reinsert-the-tip":

The resulting lenses are already smooth at a near-molecular level, meaning that any attempt to "polish" them would in fact do nothing but damage them severely.

The surface tension of the molten glass bead is overwhelming at that scale. It leaves the cooled bead very close to spherical, and gives its surface the same near-molecular degree of smoothness seen on tiny beads of water or oil. That same surface-tension smoothness is the principle behind the tiny oil-drop lenses in oil immersion microscopes.

Here’s the “lucky break”:

In 1676, Leeuwenhoek found that a flask of pepper water that had been sitting on a shelf in his study for three weeks had become cloudy. In examining the cloudy water with one of his microscopes, Leeuwenhoek was surprised to find very small organisms swimming around.

The flask wasn't just lying around. It was part of an extended series of observations. The article continues:

Hooke sent an English vicar and some other reputable observers vetted by the Royal Society to Delft to verify the reports. The observers were as amazed as Hooke and his colleagues in London had been.

This visit never happened. A year after he sent the letter and hadn't heard anything in reply, Leeuwenhoek asked several friends in Delft to write short testimonials to the Royal Society attesting to the number of little animals they saw through Leeuwenhoek's lenses.

In 1677, Leeuwenhoek’s now-verified observations were published by the Royal Society.

A severely abridged English translation of the letter of October 9, 1676, was published on March 25, 1677 in Philosophical Transactions, vol. 12 no. 133 pp. 821-831. Hooke was finally able to replicate Leeuwenhoek's observations the following November 1677. Thus, the observations were published before the verification.

How do these errors get published?

I know how they get written: a naive and lazy belief in the accuracy of the printed word. This article, excerpted from a book, Life's Engines: How Microbes Made Earth Habitable, has no citations. The book discusses Leeuwenhoek in chapter 2, which has no citations and three references: Robert Hooke's 1665 Micrographia, Paul de Kruif's 1926 Microbe Hunters, and Howard Gest's 2004 article about Hooke and Leeuwenhoek in a publication of the Royal Society. Neither De Kruif nor Gest support "Hooke sent an English vicar and some other reputable observers vetted by the Royal Society to Delft to verify the reports." In fact, they both say the opposite:

Gest (p. 195):

[Leeuwenhoek] adds, ‘... of the truth of which affirmations that I might satisfie the Illustrious Philosophers of your Society, I have here sent the Testimonials of eight credible persons.

De Kruif (chap. 2):

Leeuwenhoek "finished by saying that many people of Delft had seen—with applause!—these strange new animals under his lens. He would send them affidavits from prominent citizens of Delft—two men of God, one notary public, and eight other persons worthy to be believed."

Eight was the total number, so it should read "... two men of God, one notary public, and five other persons worthy to be believed."

Even so, Falkowski's statement is neither true nor documented:

Hooke sent an English vicar and some other reputable observers vetted by the Royal Society to Delft to verify the reports.

What purpose does such an inaccuacy serve? What false impresssion does it create about the agressiveness of the Royal Society?