Sloshing out of the swampy backwater in which he is pictured at left, Dr. Roman Vishniac, a gentle scientist of Russian birth who is one of the world's leading authorities on microbiology, turned to a reporter who had followed him on a hip-booted trip through a series of ponds near his laboratory home in Putnam County, N.Y.
"A pond," said the muddy doctor, "is a very romantic place. The jewelry of the world is at the edge of the water. With just a net or a glass I gather these jewels. I am a rich man because they are more beautiful than diamonds or sapphires."
The average man, to Dr. Vishniac's regret, seldom pauses to look at these jewels, and the brilliant display of them shown on the following pages has heretofore been seen only by a select few. To trout and other fish, however, they are the staff of life, the food on which they grow from birth. And it was Dr. Vishniac who first revealed their startling beauty. Until he opened the door to their colorful world, Hydrachna geographica or Ceratium cornutum was nothing but a long name for a tiny black blip that slid spasmodically through the murky shallows, or at best appeared as a colorless blob under an ordinary microscope.
Dr. Vishniac, whose entire life has been dedicated to scientific research, performed the miracle seven years ago when he developed an ingenious process of photomicrographic "colorization" that made possible the extraordinary images on these pages. With his new technique, he polarized available light and beamed it first through the organism, where the light components are altered by the organism's structure, then through a special system of optics. As a result, he was able to produce color patterns representing the internal structure of the organism. And through this process he has also been able to pinpoint the exact location of a microscopic creature's senses and organs, follow its patterns of behavior and study the relationship and reactions of the different components.
The fact that he has been able to do this with living-organisms has been an invaluable contribution to scientific studies in this area. For in the chain of life, these legions of microscopic creatures are an important link with man himself. The newly hatched trout—also a microscopic creature at birth—eats hundreds of these tinier organisms, and eventually grows to legal fishing size. Along the way, some of the trout are in turn devoured by larger fish, and these fish by still larger ones, until ultimately the fish are caught and are consumed by humans.
"Ten thousand pounds of a microscopic plant life we call 'lettuce' will produce 1 pounds of Daphnia," said Dr. Vishniac. "This in turn will produce 1 pounds of fish. And 1 pounds of fish will produce one pound of man. So you see, these little creatures are very important to us.
"The fisherman," he went on to say, "knows something of these things. He sits at the stream and watches the insects. When he sees the trout eat one kind of fly, he makes his artificial fly to imitate this insect. So he catches his trout—maybe. But there is much more that he does not see. If the fisherman would take with him a jar, so when the trout are not eating the flies, then the fisherman can fill his jar with water and have another sport. He will watch and soon, there at the bottom of the glass, something is moving. It bounces up and down like a tiny rubber ball. And then he knows it is Daphnia. And there is the fisherman peeking into the life of the Daphnia, and the Daphnia doesn't even know he has been captured in the glass. Such an exciting sport!"
This sort of thing is all right for amateur Daphnia-gazers but, for Dr. Vishniac, the true excitement comes when he puts the organisms under his special microscope that brings out the brilliance and perfection of the tiny swamp creatures.
"Then does my sport really begin," he said. "For me, I need no movies, plays or television. I have a whole world in my house. All night I can sit and watch.
"Others, they watch animals or fish. But these are big creatures; they take much time to live their lives. The bird watcher, he spies the nest and there is a mother on her eggs, or she is with her young ones. If the bird watcher comes close, the mother flies away. She sees the watcher and is frightened of him. With my little friends, I can watch a whole lifetime. I see them doing all the things of their business, and they do not know that I am watching them. They are, you could say, uninhibited. Through the little window of my microscope I enter their world. I see the strong and the quick and the ones who are having troubles. They have troubles, just like people. But people think if something is small it is nothing. They forget that all life is important. And that all life, even human life, in the beginning is microscopic."