There is nothing like being greeted by a Google Doodle first thing in the morning, especially when that Google Doodle reflects the tech giant’s soft spot for all things scientific.
Past Doodles have sent the curious scurrying to Wikipedia to check out the 100th anniversary of mathematician Alan Turing’s birth (extra points for irony, Google, for making the code for that one open-sourced), or to learn more about the detection of water on Mars, a moment marked by Google in 2015.
Monday morning brought a cartoon version of Antonie Philips van Leeuwenhoek, the Dutchman whose discovery of bacteria and other denizens of the micro-world earned him the title of world’s first microbiologist. Monday marks what would have been his 384th birthday.
As the Google Doodle team leader explained to Science Friday a few months ago, the team strives to honor of-the-moment science, but also to shine a light on science heroes who are not quite household names.
Like van Leeuwenhoek. The son of a basket maker and, on his mother’s side, a descendant of brewers, Antony (his first name has several variant spellings) never went to university and spoke only Dutch, which was no way to become a scientist in the 17th century. Going into business for himself as a fabric merchant in Delft, he was so enthralled by Robert Hooke’s descriptions of what he saw through a microscope that he learned to grind lenses, make his own rudimentary microscopes, and start seeing what they revealed.
Van Leeuwenhoek made more than 500 microscopes, according to the University of California Museum of Paleontology, including some with magnifications greater than 200, producing images clearer than Hooke and other microscopists had achieved. The Dutchman seemed to let nothing go by without slipping it under a lens: In dental plaque he observed bacteria, becoming the first person to see these microscopic life forms, and in lake water he observed the green algae Spirogyra (“ … divers earthy particles, and some green streaks, spirally wound serpent-wise, and orderly arranged, after the manner of the copper or tin worms”).
In some 50 years of letters to the Royal Society of London, beginning in 1673, his delight in the hidden worlds he had uncovered is palpable. He described protists such as Vorticella (“little animals … fashioned like a bell, and at the round opening they made such a stir … with outstretched bodies and straightened-out tails”), foraminifera (“little cockles … no bigger than a coarse sand-grain”), blood cells (which he discovered), living sperm cells (which he was the first to see), nematodes, rotifers, and the rest of the microscopic menagerie.
Hence the Doodle: It depicts van Leeuwenhoek shining a light on what he called animalcules — or, in today’s parlance, bacteria.