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Year 3 Science

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Stories About Scientists - Antonj van Leeuwenhoek

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Cells, bacteria, plankton - these are just a few of the things that you learn about in science but that you can't see. Even though we can't see these things, we know they exist. Why? Because scientists have seen them - not with their eyes alone, but through a microscope.

Have you ever looked through a microscope? If you haven't, maybe you've looked through a magnifying glass or examined the photos taken using a microscope shown in the Year 3 book. Most microscopes use specially made pieces of glass, called lenses, to magnify things. Do you know what it means to 'magnify'? It means to make something appear bigger.

One of the first people to explore the world of tiny things we can't see with our eyes alone was Antonj van Leeuwenhoek [AN-tonn-ee fon LAY-vun-hook]. He was born in Delft, a town in the Netherlands, in 1632. (Can you find the Netherlands on a map? We learn about the Netherlands in the History and Geography chapter of What Your Year 3 Child Needs to Know.) Delft was also home to the artist Jan Vermeer, whom we learned about in Year 2. Delft is a seaport and van Leeuwenhoek made his living as a merchant. He also liked finding things out. When he read a book about microscopes, he wanted to try observing things for himself. He found a quick way of making lenses from tiny, clear glass marbles that could make things look hundreds of times bigger (try an experiment and do this yourself in the activity Antonj van Leeuwenhoek's Magnifying Marbles). The smaller the marble, the bigger things looked through it. Then he built metal frames for holding everything steady.

Van Leeuwenhoek looked at a drop of blood through a microscope and could see it clearly enough to describe the round, dented cells within. He put a drop of dirty water under a lens. What do you think he saw? He saw a swarm of tiny, squirming, squiggly shapes. There were living creatures in the water! He scraped some plaque from his own teeth and put it under a lens, and he saw more squirmy, squiggling shapes. There were tiny creatures living in his own mouth!

He called these little creatures 'animalcules'. Scientists today would call them micro-organisms. ('Micro' means small, and an organism is a living thing, so a microorganism is a small living thing - not small like a beetle or kitten, but really small, too small to see with your eyes alone.)

Van Leeuwenhoek built many microscopes. Word got around about the amazing things you could see through them. He shared his observations with leading scientists in London's Royal Society. Even Tsar Peter the Great of Russia came to look through his lenses. But he never told anyone how he had made the microscope lenses and it was many years before anyone else discovered his secret.


This activity is adapted from pages 320 - 321 of What Your Year 3 Child Needs to Know, which can be purchased here.

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