I’ve got a bit of a thing for tardigrades.
So much so that last month I crossed water for a chance to see them in the flesh. My destination? Amsterdam.
Amsterdam’s a pretty good day out for science fans – it has NEMO Science Center, a five-floored fun house of hands-on discovery and nerdy entertainment (including one of the biggest Rube Goldberg machines since that OK Go video), and the Artis Royal Zoo, which boasts its own aquarium and planetarium.
It’s a fine zoo, one of Europe’s oldest, and its open plan means you often see different species just hanging out together, like these guys:
But that’s not why I was here. Next door to Artis sits Micropia, an interactive museum dedicated to the tiny creatures that live around us, on us, in us, that we never get to see.
Micropia invites you to play microbiologist for the day, setting up dozens of exhibits about the many different kinds of organisms we spend our lives with, each with its own microscope and slides you can manipulate to see the littl’uns in action.
They even helpfully give you this very satisfying punch card, which lets you stamp off the tiny beasts you see as you make your way around to create your own smorgasbord of microscopic wonder.
I saw water fleas…
And of course, the tardigrades…
This one was a bit camera shy.
And if you have a sudden urge to hug the tardigrade, and wrap your arms around its stumpy eight, they’ve installed this monster:
Less interactive exhibits show the important roles microbes play in our everyday lives – clearing our infections, keeping our bathrooms clean, making our yoghurt, etc.
The diversity of organisms that live alongside us is truly remarkable – and yet it’s all completely invisible to us. What’s also striking is the microbes’ strange beauty – when lots of them get together, they can make patterns that are very pleasing to our human eyes, even if they do make us violently ill on ingestion. For example, take this:
Isn’t it pretty? Oh, what is it, you ask? Yeah, that’s Botrytis cinerea. The agent for grey mould. Yeah. Not good for humans.
I’m not one to gush or anything, so let’s say that the Micropia experience made the 12-hour coach journey (with ferry ride!) there and back totally worth it. I’d definitely return. If only to give Tardi a hug.