A Skeptical Scrutiny of the Works and Theories of WILHELM REICH

As related to

The problems with Reich's use of the microscope

By Roger M. Wilcox

Last modified 13-May-2010

Reich's experiments related to bions — such as his early bion experiments, his alleged discovery of T bacilli, his SAPA bions, and Experiment XX — all hinged on his use of a conventional transmission light microscope.  In Reich's time, the electron microscope had not yet been invented.  Although Reich made sure the microscopes he used were of the highest quality, with apochromatic lenses (the best kinds of objective lenses available), he routinely pushed even these high-quality microscopes far beyond their effective magnification limits.  Everything he saw at those ultra-high magnifications is suspect.

As explained on this somewhat math-heavy webpage devoted to light-microscope resolution at http://nsm1.fullerton.edu/~skarl/EM/Microscopy/Resolution.html, there is a theoretical upper limit to how much any system of lenses can effectively magnify an image.  This theoretical limit is due to the wave nature of visible light and is unavoidable.  In practice, the effective magnification limit will always be slightly less than in theory, due to the fact that it's impossible to make perfect lenses and because the sample you're studying under the microscope will probably be immersed in water or saline solution or something else that can bend light a little bit on its own.  If you attempt to magnify an object beyond your microscope's effective magnification limit, say by adding an extra lens somewhere or by replacing your eyepiece with a more powerful one, you will only get "empty" magnification — that is, very small things in your field of view will indeed become bigger, but you will not be seeing any finer details.

One way to picture this problem is as follows: The display on a computer screen consists of thousands (or millions) of tiny squares called picture-elements or pixels.  Each pixel can only be one color at a time; it cannot be pink on one side and yellow on the other, it must be all pink or all yellow, for example.  Now imagine you've scanned in a picture of some airplanes flying very very far away, and are displaying it on your computer screen.  One of the airplanes in your picture is so small, it is represented on the screen by only one pixel.  If you take a huge magnifying glass and look at the screen-image of this tiny plane very, very closely, you will see a square that's the color of the airplane.  This does not mean that the airplane in the picture was actually square in shape.  It means that the pixel displaying the airplane is square.  You've come up against the upper limits of your screen's resolution, and cannot view any greater detail.  The same resolution problem occurs if you try to magnify an image in a microscope beyond its resolution limit.

To calculate the theoretical resolution limit of a given objective lens, you multiply the wavelength of the light by the constant 0.61, and then divide this product by a quantity called the lens's numerical aperature (N.A.).  The result will be the theoretical upper-limit to the microscope's resolution, expressed in microns (millionths of a meter).  The wavelength of green light, which lies in the middle of the visible-light spectrum, is 0.5 microns, and multiplying this by 0.61 yields a product of 0.305 microns.  This is the number that must be divided by the lens's N.A. in order to determine its theoretical resolution limit.

Different objective lenses have different N.A. values.  Generally speaking, the higher the quality of the lens, the higher the N.A..  A cheap lens might have an N.A. of only 0.25, while an average quality lens would have an N.A. of around 0.65.  Some lenses have an N.A. as high as 1.4, but it is impossible to get an N.A. higher than 1.0 without an immersion lens (an objective lens that must be stuck down in immersion oil or some other liquid placed on top of the sample).  Reich does mention using an oil immersion lens in The Cancer Biopathy, so it is reasonable to assume that he had access to oil immersion lenses when doing his early bion experiments too.  The highest N.A. of any oil-immersion apochromatic lens currently available is 1.4, so we can safely assume that Reich's lenses had an N.A. of 1.4 or lower.  Dividing 0.305 microns by 1.4 yields 0.217857 microns, so the theoretical resolution limit of Reich's microscopes would have been about 0.2 microns or larger.

Actually, according to another webpage on the Principles of Light Microscopy, the formula given above for determining the theoretical resolution limit is not quite correct.  It assumes that the obective lens and the condenser lens (a lens hidden in the middle of the microscope tube) have the same N.A..  If the N.A. of these two lenses differ, the correct, complete formula for determining the theoretical resolution limit is wavelength x 1.22 ÷ (N.A. of the objective lens + N.A. of the condenser lens).  Thus, if Reich's condenser lenses were of inferior quality to his objective lenses, his resolution limit would have been even worse.  Note that a condenser lens can also be an oil immersion lens, and so can have an N.A. as high as 1.4, too.

If the theoretical resolution limit of a microscope is 0.2 microns, this means that two objects less than 0.2 microns apart will appear as a single object when seen through the microscope.  This also means than any object less than 0.2 microns across will appear to look as though it's 0.2 microns across.  Objects at or below the resolution limit in size will all appear as circular blobs differing only by their color, similar to the way the pixels on a computer screen rendering of an image will all appear as identical squares.  It is impossible to make out the actual shape of an object that's as small as or smaller than the microscope's resolution limit.

Converting from the resolution limit to the effective magnification limit can be complicated, but a good rule of thumb is that the limit to an objective lens's effective magnification is 1000x times its N.A..  The highest quality oil-immersion apochromatic lenses, which are what Reich used, can have N.A. as high as 1.4, and so the upper limit to their effective magnification would be about 1400x.

In his early bion experiments, Reich reported routinely using magnifications of 1500x, 2000x, and even 3000x when looking at individual vesicles and the inner workings of his org-protozoa.  Yet even today, magnifications of greater than 1400x exceed the upper limits of the effective magnification possible with conventional optics.  Even high-quality apochromatic objective lenses, such as the ones Reich used, have this upper limit.  Beyond about 1400x, it is impossible to get better resolution with a light microscope — greater magnifications merely enlarge the objects being observed and give the details a blurred, indefinite border.  Something that appears as a tiny dot at 1400x will only appear as a blob twice as big across at 2800x, even if the object is actually smaller.

One pro-orgonomy webpage I came across, written by a native German speaker and entitled Microscopy in Orgonomic Research, justifies Reich's use of these super-high blurred magnification levels as follows:

Lets say one made a neat preparation of a hay infusion, a tiny bit of hay that then luckily shows signs disintegration on the edges.  You use a magnification of 600x or even 1000x and you try to concentrate on the disintegrative process that only covers a tiny fraction of your field of view.  And then you are going to judge whether there are one or two bions, whether something went into the liquid media or not whether a new bion disintegrated out of the plants membrane or whether a bion fell into pieces.  You try to do that while the rest of your field of view is distracting you and really, all you want is a higher magnification.  You enhance the ocular magnification factor following Reich's approach and yes, even though your picture seems to get more blurry, you will find the observations a lot easier.

As I said above, you will not see more details, no sharper edges.  The whole image even feels less precise.  But once you get used to this and once you spend time with these blurry projections you will find that the following questions are easier to answer:

Is there something?  did it move?  did it grow?  did it change form?  did it get brighter or darker?  did objects part or gather?

In chapter 9 of his 1937 book Menschen im Staat, translated into English as People in Trouble, Reich himself attempted to justify these high magnifications with a similar argument.  In a passage that appears on pages 261-262 of the 1976 translation, he wrote:
"Although I was aware that no structures are clearly resolvable over a magnification of 2000x, it was not seeing the finer structures themselves which interested me but seeing the motion within the bions.  Although I have often emphasized this differentiation between structure and movement in the evaluation of microscopic objects, the objection can still be heard that I did not know how to use a microscope because I was unaware that there is a limit to microscopic observation using light.  Prejudices are as deeply emdedded as lice in an animal's fur, and the greater the ignorance, the greater the arrogance.  Since mechanistic researchers focus totally and exclusively on the dead structures of stained tissues, they do not understand that there is also movement and that the fine motion in a particle which is not yet noticeable at a magnification of 2000x is, however, visible at a magnification of 3000x." [emphasis in original]
(Reich's use of the term "mechanistic" is explained in my critique of Orgonomic Functionalism.)

Myron Sharaf, in footnote 6 to chapter 17 of his book Fury on Earth: A Biography of Wilhelm Reich, cites R. M. Allen's 1941 textbook The Microscope as claiming that the observer benefits from magnification up to around 4000x (!), although the theoretical limit is much lower; provided that high-quality apochromatic lenses, such as the ones Reich employed, are used.  Even a magnification of 2000x, though, sounds awfully high for the upper limit to a light microscope's effective magnification.  1400x would be the real upper limit for a microscope with even the best immersion lenses.  Reich's defense also suffers in that being able to view motility within a vesicle requires one to be able to see the fine details themselves moving within the vesicle.  If your resolution is too coarse to see anything but the vesicle's overall shape, how can you see motility within it?  A passage from a letter Reich wrote to the Danish plant pathologist Paul Neergaard, dated 24 February 1937, is instructive as to just how questionable Reich's claims of seeing movement at such high magnifications were:

"When I instructed my assistant, Miss Berle, in the technique of performing the earth tests, I showed her among other things a contractile earth structure at approximately 3000x magnification.  She looked for no less than ten minutes without seeing the totally clear movement.  I kept on asking her whether she could see something and she always replied, 'No, I can't see a thing.'  After about ten minutes of uninterrupted observation she suddenly cried out, 'Yes, it's moving' — that is, she suddenly saw something that had been taking place already although she had been unable to observe it.  The same thing will happen to you; it happened to me as well, and that's the way it is with all new discoveries."
    — from Beyond Psychology, page 97.
(More on these "earth tests" in my bions critique.)

So not only did Reich have to go beyond the effective magnification limits of his microscope to be able to see any movement at all, he had to stare through the microscope at this high magnification for several minutes before he was able to see any movement the first time around.  His assistant had the same experience.  This makes it questionable whether the movement was really there at all, or whether his eyes just played a trick on him the first time he "saw movement," and subsequent times he and his assistant imagined seeing movement because they expected to see movement.  (At other places in Reich's work, he seemed to ignore the natural imperfections of human eyesight and assume that everything he saw, whether his eyes were open or shut, was "real.")

Finally, microbiologists do not, and did not, "focus totally and exclusively on the dead structures of stained tissues," as Reich put it — although a great deal of microbiological research in Reich's time did involve observations of stained, dead organisms.  Perhaps Reich confused biological researchers for laboratory clinicians.  It is unfortunate that Reich was not willing to take his own advice when, in the above paragraph from People in Trouble, he wrote, "The greater the ignorance, the greater the arrogance."

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