Seven Wonders of the Microcosmos
From dancing molecules to zooming microbes, all of creation declares the glory of God, even the more weird than wonderful.
This piece has been expanded from an original entry I wrote for the Climate Vigil Guidebook and contains content from a forthcoming book; it was adapted for this platform.
All of creation declares the glory of God. But some parts of creation are harder to access and see than others, and perhaps their declarations would go unnoticed and unheard were it not for the help of modern science and technology. Telescopes help us see things that are millions of miles away from us, like stars and galaxies, while microscopes magnify things that are millions of times smaller than us, like bacteria and other microbes.
In a sense, the tools of science help make the works of God’s hands more visible, and help us uncover the glory of God hidden at the macroscopic and microscopic levels of creation. Imagine the generations that came before us, who still found things in nature to marvel at, even when they couldn’t see half as much as we can today. This is a testament that we indeed have reasons to praise our maker in every age, regardless of technological limitations on what we can or cannot see.
While the wonders of the macroscopic world like the recent James Webb Space Telescope images, recordings of singing black holes and the whole idea of a multiverse often leave us with a sense of awe and wonder, things that are more microscopic in nature often leave us grossed out and squeamish. But they don’t have to.
Scientists recently discovered a new species of bacteria that is the largest ever recorded—they can be seen without a microscope as they are the size of a peanut. They are not dangerous or infectious to humans, and when looked at under a microscope look like a bead of pearls strung together. Diatoms are algae that look more like beautiful fragments of stained glass from a cathedral window than pond scum. The microscopic world isn’t just limited to bacteria and microorganisms, indeed, water molecules dance, atoms spin, and our own DNA jumps! What a wild and wondrous universe!
Scientists estimate that there are about a trillion different microbes on our planet, but we’ve only discovered less than 1 percent of them (0.001% to be exact). There really is a whole other universe just waiting to be explored, and we don’t have to look very far to discover the vast and infinitesimal expanse of this “microcosmos.”
In fact, we don’t even have to use an expensive high-powered super resolution microscope to start exploring. I taught an intro biology class a couple of years ago and introduced my students to the Foldscope, an origami pocket-sized microscope developed by engineers at Stanford University. It can magnify things up to 140x, which means you can see tiny things like bacteria, the hairs on an insect wing and even an individual grain of salt. My hope was to help open my student’s eyes to the beautiful microscopic world of detailed patterns and shapes that they would otherwise miss with their naked eyes.
There might not be spinning planets and singing blackholes in the microscopic world, but there are spinning atoms, dancing and singing molecules, and microbes with comet tails that zoom around. If you ask me this is just as exciting and spectacular as the grandeur of the cosmos…
There might not be spinning planets and singing blackholes in the microscopic world, but there are spinning atoms, dancing and singing molecules, and microbes with comet tails that zoom around. If you ask me this is just as exciting and spectacular as the grandeur of the cosmos, but as a cell and molecular biologist, I just might be biased. Here are a handful of wonders in the microcosmos worth considering!
1. Dancing Water Molecules
A single glass of water contains as many as 6.68 x 1024 water molecules! While the water in the glass might appear still from the outside, at a molecular level the individual water molecules are bouncing around and dancing, breaking and reforming their chemical bonds. The science nerd in me used to like telling my students that there’s a molecular dance party going on inside a cup of water. If you add heat to the equation, by boiling a pot of water, the molecules go from slow dancing to break dancing. And of course if you freeze the water, their movement starts to relax, but it doesn’t fully go away, they still wiggle. Some molecules are multitalented, they can dance and sing.
You can get a glimpse into the movement of water molecules by adding a few drops of food coloring to a glass of water. Without you even mixing them, over time the dye spreads out evenly into the glass until the water is one homogenous color; that’s thanks in part to the water molecules whose movement gradually mixes the dye.
2. Spinning Atoms
Like planets spin, the tiny atoms that makeup molecules spin as well. Their motion can be detected using a special instrument called a scanning tunneling microscope. Scientists recently took a picture of spinning atoms using this technology. The way atoms spin is quite different than how we think of spinning planets and tops and balls. It has to do more with the magnetic properties of atoms and how their position is affected or deflected by the magnetic properties of their surroundings. Also, the way atoms are often depicted like solar systems, with tiny balls of electrons orbiting them in neatly organized concentric rings is over simplistic and wrong. It’s a bit more messy and beautiful, but models, while limited can help us begin to understand and conceptualize the wonders of the microcosmos.
3. Zooming Bacteria Comets
If you’ve ever been unlucky to get food poisoning like me, you may have had an up close and too personal encounter with the bacteria Listeria. While its presence isn’t the most comfortable or welcome for us, it has some endearing beauty to its pain. If you were to look at Listeria under a microscope and they were labeled with fluorescence, you’d see them zooming around in your cells with comet-like tails as part of their life cycle.
4. Resilient Water Bears
Tardigrades, affectionately known as water bears for their chubby gummy bear appearance, are microscopic organisms. These creatures are oddly cute and very much intriguing to scientists for their ability to survive harsh conditions, like outer space, radiation and extreme temperatures; they can even go without food and water for years. You can find these creatures in your backyard hanging out on algae, in pond water or in the soil, but you’ll need a microscope to see them because they are small and transparent.
5. Multidimensional Network of Neurons
If you think the idea of a multiverse is mind blowingly beautiful, brace yourself for what scientists have discovered inside the human brain. Reality as we know it consists of three dimensions, but according to String Theory the universe has as many as 10 dimensions to it. Scientists recently discovered that the human brain has 11, and perhaps even more. There’s a whole universe inside us, not just up and around us.
6. Regenerating Neoblasts
These special cells can be found inside planarians, a humble flatworm with the remarkable ability to regenerate itself after injury. Not only can these worms regenerate and repair damaged parts, fragments of their bodies can regenerate an entirely new organism. Neoblasts are the stem cells responsible for this ability to regenerate. You can see planarians without the aid of a microscope, but you would need a microscope to see these cells and other structures inside. Nothing else found in nature or in the human body compares to these cell’s ability, but scientists are hoping to better understand them and apply this knowledge to regenerative medicine in humans.
7. Glowing Dinoflagellates
If you’ve ever seen a glowing tide, chances are you’ve seen Dinoflagellates, or at least the light they emit. Dinoflagellates are tiny microorganisms that are mostly algae and plankton. They don’t look that impressive under a microscope, more like a science fiction creature from outer space with a chubby round center and tentacle-like appendages protruding off. They give off light, which makes a tide at night look like a beautiful star-studded sea. For the Dinoflagellates, it’s less about beauty and more about survival; the light they emit is meant to ward off predators. Proteins these organisms produce are responsible for their ability to glow.
As we look up and explore the cosmos, let’s not forget the cosmos inside us, the wonders in and on us; they can equally lend themselves to deeper worship of God as creator.
Our entire planet and bodies are teaming with life and motion.
As we look up and explore the cosmos, let’s not forget the cosmos inside us, the wonders in and on us; they can equally lend themselves to deeper worship of God as creator. Even when considering things that are more weird than wonderful, grotesque than glorious, modest than marvelous, (perhaps the tardigrade would fit these descriptions), curious questions, like how and why can also pave the way to appreciating the diversity of life our great God has made.
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