Hosts of new applications have turned the light microscope into an exquisitely sensitive measuring device that can be used to image dynamic cellular events right down to the molecular level. Indeed, dramatic improvements in optical microscopy have brought about a renaissance in the use of light microscopes in biology and medicine. And within the last few years, the combination of novel optical systems with video and digital image processing capabilities have opened up whole new fields of research in biology, chemistry, and even physics.

The invention that first enabled researchers to see clear images of living cells was the phase-contrast microscope, which won its inventor, Frits Zernike, a Nobel Prize in 1932. Prior to Zernike's work, specimens were typically stained with organic dyes with such colorful names as coomassie blue and malachite green. These dyes either stained the whole specimen to provide contrast or, preferably, stained only parts of cells,...

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