One day in Delft in the fall of 1677, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, a cloth merchant who is said to have been the long-haired model for two paintings by Johannes Vermeer—“The Astronomer” and “The Geographer”—abruptly stopped what he was doing with his wife and rushed to his worktable. Cloth was Leeuwenhoek’s business but microscopy his passion. He’d had five children already by his first wife (though four had died in infancy), and fatherhood was not on his mind. “Before six beats of the pulse had intervened,” as he later wrote to the Royal Society of London, Leeuwenhoek was examining his perishable sample through a tiny magnifying glass. Its lens, no bigger than a small raindrop, magnified objects hundreds of times. Leeuwenhoek had made it himself; nobody else had one so powerful……
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By Robert Kunzig.