PZ Myers gives an excellent holiday gift suggestion for aspiring scientists: a microscope.
To fully appreciate the small animals around us, they must be visualized on their own scale. For the uninitiated, the first glance of live insects through a microscope can be shocking. My favorite description comes from myrmecologist Deby Cassill, recalling her introduction to fire ants:
“Unexpectedly, a whole new world exploded into view. It was as though I had been yanked off the stool, sucked through the scope, and plunked smack-dab in the middle of a city teeming with the most beautiful glass-like creatures… Their colors and shapes were like nothing I’d ever seen before. Some were glowing curves of amber, some blocks of white marble, and some translucent raindrops freckled in white.”
-Deby Cassill, writing in Walt Tschinkel’s marvelous The Fire Ants.
For research I normally use the expensive high-end scopes that have been available in the various labs I’ve worked in, but one doesn’t need to drop that kind of money to have a workable microscope. At home I’ve got a $200 student scope from Ward’s Scientific. This little scope works fine for oogling pretty insects. It’s the perfect magnification for ant-sized critters and indeed, I used it for many years to do my preliminary specimen sorting in Paraguay. Anyone with an interest in nature would do well to have one.