My Foldscope

It took me twice as long to piece it together as it would’ve taken a 10-year-old, and quite a bit of twisting and tugging before I got just one slide inside it, but the fact that a Foldscope is a pocket-sized microscope made mostly of paper made up for everything.

My sample was a short strand of my own hair surrounded by something I think is either dandruff or dirt (or even possibly air trapped between the two layers of cellophane tape used to hold the strand together). It doesn’t look like much – but the fact that there’s now a magical device in my pocket that lets me look at a universe folded away in millionths of a meter is amazing enough. To express what I’m feeling: I’m sure this quote has been pulled up too many times before but, as it happens, no other combination of words has a patch on the awe they muster. They were penned by the English polymath Robert Hooke, and appear among the last words in his Micrographia (1665):

By the means of Telescopes, there is nothing so far distant but may be represented to our view; and by the help of Microscopes, there is nothing so small, as to escape our inquiry; hence there is a new visible World discovered to the understanding. By this means the Heavens are open’d, and a vast number of new Stars, and new Motions, and new Productions appear in them, to which all the ancient Astronomers were utterly Strangers. By this the Earth it self, which lyes so neer us, under our feet, shews quite a new thing to us, and in every little particle of its matter, we now behold almost as great a variety of creatures as we were able before to reckon up on the whole Universe it self.

The Foldscope is the creation of the Prakash Lab at Stanford University, helmed by a bioengineer named Manu Prakash. It was debuted two years ago in a TED talk Prakash gave. For a brief summary of what motivated its creation and its features, you could watch the talk (below) or read this piece I wrote for The Hindu. For even more details – and wonderful pictures taken by people using Foldscopes the world over – visit the device’s dedicated website. Now, my sister and I are off to explore the microcosms that inhabit our house.

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