In hundreds of workshops, deep in the bellies of Universities and Labs alike, a thousand-year-old art meets modern day science. So many of the instruments that scientists use for critical experiments are made of glass. From test tubes to beakers, these tools need to be molded to perfection. Otherwise, the integrity of an experiment is totally at risk. That’s where scientific glassblowers come into the picture. Not does scientific glassblowing help create the tools we know- it also can be used to create customized tools for specific experiments.
Scientists will come to scientific glassblowers with vague ideas about an experiment and a tool they’d need to make it work- it’s up to the glassblower to make that idea a reality. “A lot of times, they’re just blue-sky ideas,” said Daryl Smith, a former Kontes glassblower who works at the nation’s only scientific glassblowing degree program, at Salem Community College in Carneys Point.
New Jersey’s Salem Community College offers a degree in Scientific Glassblowing. According to the instructional chair of the program, Dennis Briening, students not only need to learn about glassblowing itself, but also the basics of organic chemistry and computer drafting. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Briening states, “You need to know enough about everything, about mechanics, about chemistry, about physics, about thermodynamics — whatever a chemist can come up with, you need to know just a little bit to get that chemist through.”
Scientific Glassblowers need to have this knowledge in order to collaborate with scientists to make these complex experiments a success. As you can imagine, customized projects such as these take an incredible amount of patience and precision. “I always say a millimeter to a glassblower is a mile,” says Briening in an interview with NPR. Briening has previously had to create glassware while holding a tolerance of one-thousandth of an inch. To put that into perspective, a human hair is about two- to three-thousandth of an inch.
These artists are not only helpful in terms of making complex experiments successful, but also in terms of quick repairs. Take Stephen Ramsey, a glass-blower for the Imperial College London. Prior to him joining the college, broken tools would need to be sent off to an external company. This means students had to wait up to eight weeks for equipment to be repaired. According to an interview with New Scientist, Ramsey himself knows how important time can be, “If you’ve got a student doing a master’s, for example, six weeks lost is no good to them. I can repair it and get it back the next day.”
Because it’s an extremely difficult job, it takes years to become a seasoned scientific glassblower, “It took ten years to become a senior glassblower,” Steve states. “You spend five years learning the basic skills and then five years focusing on design.”
So, if the job is so difficult, why are people still doing it? Well, not only is it greatly needed in the scientific industry, but many students at Salem Community College have caught what they refer to as the “glass bug”. In an interview with NPR, Katie Severance, a student of the college who now teaches Scientific Glassblowing at the school, states, “Glass as a material is so captivating. It starts as a solid. You put it in a fire. Everybody loves fire. And then it melts, and it’s a liquid. It’s like a beautiful dance, working with the material, getting to know it.”
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