Discoverer of the Unseen World Essay - Critical Essays

Alma Smith Payne


Payne’s work is intended for young readers, and it is written in a clear and engaging style. While she writes from a twentieth century perspective—providing modern terms and names for the phenomena that Leeuwenhoek investigated and a running commentary on the modern significance of his discoveries—Payne also presents Leeuwenhoek as an individual of his time. His work could be accepted, despite his amateur status, because the nature of scientific practice remained largely undefined. In a sense, all scientists were amateurs.

Payne refers frequently to Leeuwenhoek’s own narratives of his discoveries. This is an effective technique that conveys Leeuwenhoek’s own blunt personality and chatty style, as well as the setting of his work. Leeuwenhoek performed his experiments not in a laboratory but in his own home, and he looked at everyday objects. The book also vividly reveals the newness and wonder of what Leeuwenhoek saw with his lenses—phenomena so novel that he struggled to find the words to describe them.

Leeuwenhoek’s letters, as related by Payne, also describe the day-to-day grind of doing scientific research. He looked at thousands of specimens from every conceivable source, from pond water to his own body. Payne artfully employs such fictional techniques as suspense and conjectural musings to flesh out the bare recital of events and to give the text a narrative drive. Nevertheless, she does not romanticize Leeuwenhoek’s fifty...

(The entire section is 508 words.)