Around ScienceBlogs recently there’s been some discussion about the following eyebrow-raising Toys-R-Us advertisement:
The ad has caused rumblings of discontent because it’s pretty obvious the pink microscope and telescope are supposed to be “girl” editions, and in both cases the pink one is the smallest, dinkiest, and lowest powered. The bare fact of pinkness in and of itself isn’t really something I’d care about – if the same dopey company wants to make “boy” microscopes in MARPAT it would be stupid but as long as it’s a good scope then I have no objection to the consumer getting what they want. In practice however it seems likely that girls aren’t going to want pink, as pink is cloying and patronizing in a context like this. Doubly so when pink is associated with the cheapest piece of junk in the catalog.
The semiotics of the ad having been discussed well elsewhere, I’d like to take a look at the practical flip-side of the discussion. If you’re buying microscopes or telescopes for yourself or your children, how important is magnification?
Let me start with a demonstration. I took this photograph from the 6th floor of Texas A&M’s Evans Library, facing more or less in a southeasterly direction. The camera is a rather old and cheap camera phone.
See the mushroom-shaped object near the horizon on the right? That’s one of the water towers in College Station. By driving near it we can see that it has writing on it, but driving near Saturn is impossible and so that’s why we buy telescopes with magnification. We want to see the writing, so we increase our magnification:
Any writing we can read? Not at all. We’re treated to a nearly featureless blur. Magnification didn’t help. Our image has a certain intrinsic level of resolution and magnification simply cannot improve that. If I want more detail, I need better optics. There’s no shortcut via simply increasing magnification.
Telescopes and microscopes are the same. Their optics produce a certain resolution, and using higher magnification than the resolution can support leaves you looking at a dim, shaky, and unenlightening blob. In practice a lot of amateur astronomy is done below 50x and pretty much all of it is done under 100x. Much higher than that rapidly becomes pointless unless you have a large-aperture instrument and a cooperative atmosphere. Microscopes are similar. I had a pretty high-quality microscope as a child, and I found the best views (in terms of brightness and clarity) at the 100x and 250x levels. I had a 1000x lens as well, but it was hard to see much of anything. The 1200x magnification that cheap Toys-R-Us microscope is unusable, I can absolutely promise.
In short: when buying a telescope, aperture (the size of the front lens/mirror) is overwhelmingly the most important thing. When buying a microscope, the quality of the optics is most important. That’s harder to judge by the advertising copy, but there’s plenty of reviews online and if nothing else price is a good indicator (which is not to say that there aren’t plenty of affordable good microscopes). Advertising that focuses on magnification is itself a fairly reliable indicator of poor quality.
Even shorter, don’t buy pink microscopes from a toy store. Don’t buy anything scientific from a toy store period.