Close-Up View of Science History Opens Christmas Eve

December 15, 2011
By Ann Brody Guy
golub_alexis_magny_1750-60_130.jpgInvoking the premise of the classic holiday film It’s a Wonderful Life—that small, chance meetings set in motion life-changing events—it follows that the world would have missed out on a unique piece of science history if microscope aficionados Orville Golub and Steve Ruzin had never crossed paths.

But thanks to that meeting, and the years-long friendship and collaboration that followed, the public will get an eyeful of optic history beginning Dec. 24, when the San Francisco International Airport (SFO) Museum presents A World Examined: Microscopes from the Age of Enlightenment to the Twentieth Century, an exhibit featuring a selection of antique microscopes from the Golub Collection at the University of California, Berkeley.

The SFO Museum exhibition will run for six months; the Golub Collection is on permanent display in the Valley Life Sciences Building at UC Berkeley.

“This collection is visually stunning and historically unsurpassed,” said Ruzin, who has been the Golub Collection curator since 2003 and runs the Biological Imaging Facility at Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources as his day job, as well as teaching classes in microscopy. “The SFO Museum is providing an amazing platform to expand the audience for this great piece of science history.”
Computer Questions

When he met Ruzin, Golub was the retired executive and co-founder of BioScience Laboratories, and an avid collector of antique microscopes. Both men earned their Ph.D.s at Berkeley.

You could credit Steve Jobs for bringing the two together:


Wooden Simple Microscope, 1700–1725, probably made in Italy. Top: Alexis Magny Compound Microscope, 1750–1760, made by Alexis Magny in Paris.

A mutual friend at Berkeley, Rudi Schmid, introduced them in 1995, when Golub needed some help choosing the right Mac for cataloguing his collection. Ruzin was also a Mac early adopter.

“Orv and I started talking about computers and we also started talking about the collection,” Ruzin said. The friendship grew.

On a separate track, in 1997, Golub donated 47 of his 286 scopes to UC Berkeley, where he'd studied, served his Navy time, and met his wife.

In 2003, the two threads came together: with support from Golub and the nod from Geoffrey Owen, the newly installed dean of the Division of Biological Sciences in the College of Letters & Science, Ruzin took his place as the collection's official curator. A flurry of activity followed.

Curatorial Fervor

“I took all new photos of the scopes, built a whole new web site, and I reserved the URL and put the new site on one of my servers,” Ruzin said.

He also launched the Microscope of the Month, or MOM, a lovingly photographed and annotated series of Web pages promoting selected microscopes from the collection to the campus community and beyond.

Ruzin had the old case and what he refers to as “the world’s ugliest benches” replaced with custom cases and artisan benches bearing a welcoming message from the Golub family: “Have a Seat.”

Golub gradually moved the finest and rarest instruments in his collection to the University with a series of donations over several years, many of which Ruzin hand-picked and personally drove up to Berkeley from the Golub's home in Los Angeles.

Overett says that the collection's high quality is a direct result of this unique collaboration.

"Dad amassed the collection of microscopes, but Steve is single-handedly responsible for the elegant presentation to the public," she said. "His knowledge of the intricacies of the scopes has made the collection a valuable teaching tool as well."

A Close-Up View

Ruzin learns even more about the scopes while producing the MOM. He eschews the usual sacrosanct approach to historical objects, instead dismantling, cleaning, and photographing each component. The MOM Web page goes live the last day of the month, and the site regularly gets hits from all over the world.

Golub is one of the MOM’s most devoted followers.

"Dad looks forward to viewing the MOM on the first of every month," said Overett. Golub is a stickler for typos and grammatical errors, she said, so he sends Ruzin a list of corrections, which he promptly fixes.

“He swears that I intentionally put these mistakes in for him to find, but I assure him that it’s the real me,” Ruzin laughed.

The Berkeley-SFO Connection

In November of 2009, Ruzin came through SFO on a trip, and as he whizzed by the museum display cases in the international terminal, it occurred to him that the scopes would be a great fit. When he got back to his office he sent the museum a note and the link to the collection.

Wilson Screw-Barrel Microscope, c. 1720, possibly made in France.

Several months later, the phone rang.

“It’s fabulous! We want it!” It was Ramekon O’Arwisters, one of the museum's curators. Soon after, they had a kick-off meeting.

“Steve’s enthusiasm is infectious,” said Tim O’Brien, the museum's curator of exhibitions. “He’s got a real sense of mission about the collection. I think that's why we mesh. We have a sense of mission, and we want to light the fire under other people who may not have seen these extraordinary objects before.”

Ruzin worked with O’Arwisters and O’Brien to develop meaningful groupings for 20 cases. The resulting exhibit features 60 of the Golub Collection’s 157 scopes, plus videos and photos.

O’Brien estimates that the exhibit will be seen by well over a million people during the course of its six-month exhibition.

For Golub, whose contributions to the University have earned him the distinguished designation of one of the “Builders of Berkeley,” the SFO Museum show is a chance to share his lifelong passion with more people.

“When people look at these scopes, my father hopes they share his appreciation for these beautiful instruments and for the scientific history they represent,” said Overett.

What: A World Examined: Microscopes from the Age of Enlightenment to the Twentieth Century, an exhibit featuring a selection of antique microscopes from the Golub Collection at the University of California, Berkeley.

Where: SFO Museum, San Francisco International Airport, International Terminal, A2 - South 20 Cases

When: Dec. 24, 2011-June 2012

More Information: 650.821.6700,