Microscopes date back to the 1500s, although the term was not used until Galileo developed the compound microscope in 1625. While simple optical microscopes like Galileo's are still in use and can be used to see things up to .2 micrometers in size, technological advances have brought about a wealth of new types of microscopes, including electron microscopes and light microscopes that allow scientists to see even smaller particles. Allowing humans to see what was previously invisible to the naked eye, the invention of the microscope heralded great changes in society.
When people learned that there were microscopic organisms and particles that they couldn't see, but that had the potential to make them sick, cleanliness improved dramatically. Cleansers and cleaning tools have been developed to reduce or eliminate the microscopic threats in the environment.
Great strides in food safety have been made throughout the last millennium, including refrigeration and pasteurization, but even after people realized microorganisms could spoil and contaminate foods, skeptics remained. Microscopes have allowed scientists not only to see these microorganisms, but also to photograph them and show them to the general population. Knowing these microorganisms exist, being able to see them through a microscope, has greatly improved the safety of the foods and drinks people consume.
A perhaps obvious, yet crucial area that has been affected by microscopes is medicine. Improved equipment and techniques have allowed modern scientists to catalog the human genome, identify deadly viruses and determine what a cancer cell looks like. Before microscopes, a simple count of a patient's white blood cells to tell if they had an infection was impossible. As a result, the invention of the microscope can be directly linked to increased longevity and improved health.
There are a wealth of nonmedical-related scientific discoveries and advances that have occurred as a direct result of microscopes. Advances in chemistry, farming and energy production are just a few examples of how microscopes have affected society from a scientific standpoint. The entire field of nanotechnology — manipulating matter on an atomic or molecular scale — would not even exist without microscopes.
The ability to study things at the atomic level using microscopes has led to improved weaponry. While this hasn't always led to improvements in society, it has had an impact on today's society. By studying the atomic structures of metals and alloys through a microscope, scientists have been able to develop new materials with which to build armor and weapons. Manipulating naturally occurring compounds has led to the development of nerve gases, and biological agents, such as those using the smallpox virus and anthrax bacteria, have been manipulated using microscopes to yield the most virulent strains.
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