The dying breed of craftsmen behind the tools that make scientific research possible
Rosanna Xia reports in the LA Times:
Hunkered down in the sub-basement of the Norman W. Church Laboratory for Chemical Biology, underneath a campus humming with quantum teleportation devices, gravity wave detectors and neural prosthetics, Rick Gerhart chipped away at a broken flask.
Blowtorch in hand, he pulled the softened glass apart like taffy, tweezing out glass shards with a flick of his wrist. Peering into the dancing flames, he examined his work for wrinkles — imperfections invisible to the untrained eye.
“It not only should be functional,” he said, smoothing the rim with a carbon rod, “it has to look good.”
Here in Caltech’s one-man glass shop, where Gerhart transforms a researcher’s doodles into intricate laboratory equipment, craftsmanship is king. No two pieces of scientific glassware are the same, and for more than two decades, students and Nobel laureates alike have begun each project with Gerhart’s blessing that, yes, he can create the tools to make their experiments possible.
But Gerhart, 71, is retiring, and the search is on to find someone, anyone, who can fill his shoes. In a cost-cutting world of machines and assembly plants, few glass blowers remain with the level of mastery needed at research hubs like Caltech.
“He’s a somewhat dying breed,” said Sarah Reisman, who relied on Gerhart to create 20 maze-like contraptions for her synthetic organic chemistry lab. “There just aren’t as many scientific glass blowers anymore, and certainly not ones that have Rick’s level of experience. Even a fraction of that experience, I think, just isn’t out there.”
Full-time university glass blowers are considered tops in their field, but few institutions still offer such positions or give young glass blowers the chance to hone their craft. When Cal State L.A.’s longtime glass blower retired last year, the shop which he had run for 30 years closed down. Similar fates have befallen glass blowing at UCLA and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. At UC Riverside, which once had three full-time glass blowers and two glass shops, a glass blower now comes in one day a week.
USC is the only other university in the L.A. area that still has a full-time glass blower, Gerhart said. Across the U.S., those who land such jobs tend to stay until retirement.
“So now, to take my place” — Gerhart paused, spinning through his mental Rolodex. He chuckled: “Looks like we have to steal somebody.”
To master scientific glass blowing, proper training and apprenticeships are key. Only one school in the nation, Salem Community College in New Jersey, offers a degree program.
In addition to the hands-on training, which requires a knack for precision as well as coordination, students must take courses in organic chemistry, math and computer drawing.
“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,” said Dennis Briening, instructional chair of Salem’s two-year program. “And of course, you need to be very skilled, technique-wise. So it really takes a long time to get to a position like Rick’s.”
Gerhart enrolled in the Salem program in 1965, after dropping out of college to give his father’s profession a try. . .