Caltech glassblower's retirement has scientists sighing
June 27, 2016 2:28 AM   Subscribe

Caltech glassblower's retirement has scientists sighing (LATimes) “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 glassblowers 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.”
posted by CrystalDave (71 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
 
Yes, I see the problem – institutions don't want to pay or train assistants – then someone with critical knowledge leaves, and there's shock and horror that they can't be replaced. In the 21st C, institutions are terrible at long-term planning and infrastructure, especially human infrastructure.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:17 AM on June 27, 2016 [66 favorites]


They're going to end up hiring an adjunct glassblower, aren't they.
posted by Etrigan at 3:23 AM on June 27, 2016 [66 favorites]


Seems like an interesting career.
posted by Harald74 at 3:36 AM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


Slightly less grumpily – the early history of Modern Western Science culture had a three way relationship between Scientists (usually upper-class), Observers/Recorders, and Instrument Makers (both of whom tended to be much lower in social class). And that relationship was sometimes contentious and sometimes friendly, but only the first group really made it into the general history books, with the other two being mostly forgotten and devalued.

Good instrument making is, in a lot of ways, at least as important as what we usually think of as "science" in scientific progress.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:44 AM on June 27, 2016 [29 favorites]


I wonder if 3D printing could step up to the mark here at some point. It seems to have not too many practical applications thus far despite being hailed as the biggest thing since the integrated circuit.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 3:44 AM on June 27, 2016 [2 favorites]


The guys at the end of the research funding pipeline really are the unsung heroes.
posted by mikelieman at 3:45 AM on June 27, 2016


These glass 3D printers have somewhat lumpy results: http://matter.media.mit.edu/environments/details/g3dp
posted by waninggibbon at 3:47 AM on June 27, 2016


Echoing GenjiandProust... I have a glass hydrometer for alcohol, made in 1891 according to the (French-language printed and hand-annotated) label. It's a simple-looking but amazing piece of work for being the result of somebody blowing glass and being able to accurately insert the graduated scale and lead shot and seal it and have the end result be usably accurate.
posted by ardgedee at 4:06 AM on June 27, 2016 [4 favorites]


Years ago I acquired a simple yet elegant piece of lab-ware created in 19th c. Germany by a Dr. F. Klein. I'd love to see one of these here three dee printers try to duplicate that.
 
posted by Herodios at 4:43 AM on June 27, 2016 [5 favorites]


Yes, I see the problem – institutions don't want to pay or train assistants – then someone with critical knowledge leaves, and there's shock and horror that they can't be replaced.
And the dude is 71 years old! It's not like they can claim to be blindsided by his retirement. It's so short-sighted. If they had taken on a fresh-out-of-the-one-training-program apprentice when Gerhart was 60, that person would be thoroughly experienced now.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 4:58 AM on June 27, 2016 [17 favorites]


As much as I appreciated having the glassblower on campus when I was doing research at a university that had one, the reality is that they are basically a luxury, not a necessity, for 99.9% of modern research, so it's hardly short-sighted. I got just as much done at the university that didn't have one, because the reality is that Chemglass makes almost anything you'd ever need, and you custom order the very rare weird outliers.

I love the craft of it (I've been given the chance to try it just for funsies, and damn is it hard to do even the simplest things), and I loved that we could get stuff repaired rather than buying new glassware, but this is basically an article wistfully bemoaning the fate of buggy manufacturers in the automobile world; there's still a need, but it's very small and niche.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 5:11 AM on June 27, 2016 [6 favorites]


despite being hailed as the biggest thing since the integrated circuit

By an incompetent tech press...

3d printing has some cool applications. Glass is almost certainly not one of them.
posted by schmod at 5:21 AM on June 27, 2016 [8 favorites]


As much as I appreciated having the glassblower on campus when I was doing research at a university that had one, the reality is that they are basically a luxury, not a necessity, for 99.9% of modern research, so it's hardly short-sighted.

I'm right there with you up until you consider that this man is leaving CalTech where one would assume the school itself would want a disproportionate amount of that 0.1% research coming from. They have over a $2.5 billion dollars in endowments, trusts, and real estate (from their Investments page) - and $2.19 billion dollars of that is in the endowment according to their Wikipedia. This is not a school that has to skimp on supplies. Yet here a clear example of an administration relying on modern cost evaluation instead of appropriate succession planning.
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:28 AM on June 27, 2016 [7 favorites]


By the way, this actually solves a mystery for me. My university offers an upper-level chemistry course in scientific glassblowing, and I was always a little confused by it. I assumed it was the science of glassblowing, not glassblowing for science. Anyway, it turns out that the department employs a glassblower who appears to be pretty young. Interesting.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:32 AM on June 27, 2016 [7 favorites]


I dunno, Dr. E – if you fall into that .1% of needing a very specialized piece of equipment, and there's some trial and error in the design process, it can get time- and money-intensive in a way that having a specialist isn't. It reminds me of the way that libraries are quietly eliminating Government Publication collections and closing depository libraries. Yes, there is a ton of older governmental material that's way more than 99.9% "useless," but it's also irreplaceable, so, if no one is willing to keep the material, what happens. And relying on commercial entities as any sort of custodians of anything has proven... unsatisfactory.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:32 AM on June 27, 2016 [9 favorites]


I have worked on a project that had highly skilled designers with access to both a master tool maker and 3d printers. The tool maker was, given he was a person and not a machine, vastly more expensive to have around but by god did he make up for that cost when it came to prototyping and fabrication. When you are trying to do something unusual being able to work with someone who is a master of the material you need to deal with is incredibly helpful.

3d printers are like microwaves, they can be handy but they are never going to replace being able to use a proper stove and kitchen.
posted by deadwax at 5:48 AM on June 27, 2016 [6 favorites]


I worked at a Federal mining lab for a term in 1992 (earlier thread) that had a full time glassblower on contract. He did all sorts of looney stuff in support of bench scale ore processing and waste remediation tests, and was generally backed up by several months worth of requests (i think he was only in a few days a week and also worked over at Carleton). I got some stuff in the pipeline in less than a week, much to the surprise of my project lead...turned out I had unknowingly helped the glassblower with a crossword clue at the lunch table some time in my first week and this street cred bought me a space towards the front of the queue.

That guy must be retired by now. I remember wondering at the time how one got the training. The chem eng dept at UW, one of the largest in Canada, didn't have a staff glassblower and used to send all their stuff out. Happily my grad work was in extrusion and I needed machinists a lot more than I needed glassblowers, of which we had several really good ones.
posted by hearthpig at 5:51 AM on June 27, 2016 [11 favorites]


At my alma mater Harvey Mudd, they still include glass blowing as part of the requirements for a Chemistry degree (taken in P Chem lab your sophomore year). I remember fondly having a mild cough (from inhaling the popped glass bubbles), slightly chapped lips (the result of blowing on the end of a just cut, non-tempered glass tube), and sensitive fingertips (from being continually burned on hot glass which mostly looks exactly like cold glass). We considered these badges of honor (along with the racoon imprints on our faces from too-tight lab goggles) that we chem majors proudly displayed. In addition to pipets, test tubes, and t-joints, I made shiny glass stars and sparkly glass candy cane Christmas tree ornaments for my family that year, alongside my classmates who were more focused on perfecting their bong-making skills.
posted by Illusory contour at 5:55 AM on June 27, 2016 [36 favorites]


As much as I appreciated having the glassblower on campus when I was doing research at a university that had one, the reality is that they are basically a luxury, not a necessity, for 99.9% of modern research, so it's hardly short-sighted.

Lot of people have been saying this about research universities in general for a while now. It's short-sighted.
posted by Etrigan at 5:57 AM on June 27, 2016 [11 favorites]


Maybe he could blow some new corrective lenses for all these short-sighted people.
posted by Kabanos at 6:01 AM on June 27, 2016 [17 favorites]


It seems that the modern university is designed to produce lots of fodder for corporations that provide student loans and provide 0.01% salaries for a few chancellors (political plum jobs for guys like Ken Starr). It's amazing that glass blowers are still around at all.
posted by Bee'sWing at 6:14 AM on June 27, 2016


I had the privilege of taking a glassblowing/lampworking class from a father and son team, purely as a curiosity, not as training per se. Their primary source of income was actually making lab glass for a number of industrial and educational customers, which they did out of an old barn in the middle of nowhere, North Carolina, with dozens of custom-built jigs. At the time I was there the father was proudly showing me this one specific jig he'd been working on for a chemical supplier. They'd been iterating over the design for months, to get the physics exactly right.

I bought an old Bethlehem Lathe (made in Pennsylvania) off eBay and it came with a manual that was written with the idea that the audience was of course using it to make lab glass, because it was such a natural fit that it was often included in chemistry curriculums.

Certainly, you can get by with automated manufacturing in a lot of cases, but in reality you're probably actually just getting overseas hand-made equipment instead, because it's way easier to do these low-volume pieces that way. Just like in other manufacturing situations where moving skilled labor overseas for "cost savings" ends up meaning a humanitarian disaster, I'd be very wary of cheap custom lab glass.
posted by odinsdream at 6:42 AM on June 27, 2016 [8 favorites]


Human infrastructure, aka apprenticeships.

Recently, a 70-something electrician told me about his professional origins. When Sam was a tiny kid, he took everything apart. When he was 11, he met George Washington, a neighbor who repaired radios and other electronics, and was captivated by the sheer number of things to take apart that lived in Washington's home, which doubled as his shop. Every day for several years, this little white kid would go over to his black neighbor's home and tinker (and Mrs. Washington would always make sure Sam got fed). By the time he was 15, he had rewired his own house, under Mr. Washington's supervision. By the time he was 18, he had dropped out of school and joined the military, where he passed enough of the electronics testing to eventually go to special training so he could work on the military's newfangled weather instruments. He traveled the world working on them, and in the course of his travels he met his wife, and just kept working at taking things apart and fixing them and making them work. He told me all of this as he was sitting in the shade, resting between bouts of rewiring something in my house. Very few people fix radios and TVs anymore, but Sam does. His life changed because he was able to develop his native interest under the tutelage of a caring adult, and then in a more formal training program. The transfer of knowledge, especially through apprenticeships, matters.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:52 AM on June 27, 2016 [46 favorites]


It reminds me of the way that libraries are quietly eliminating Government Publication collections and closing depository libraries. Yes, there is a ton of older governmental material that's way more than 99.9% "useless," but it's also irreplaceable, so, if no one is willing to keep the material, what happens. And relying on commercial entities as any sort of custodians of anything has proven... unsatisfactory.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:32 AM on June 27


And the great Librarian schism of 2016 struck Metafilter, spurred by a discussion on a retiring glass blower.

Proust shot first.
posted by Nanukthedog at 6:55 AM on June 27, 2016 [3 favorites]


The transfer of knowledge, especially through apprenticeships, matters.

Which is evidently still happening despite all the hand-wringing in the article, because there are six applicants, and a professional organization that is small but exists. Note that the article makes it clear that the retiring master got his job the same way--last guy handed him the keys and left.

Like many professions that have lost their major raison d'etre (the need for almost all research glassware to be custom manufactured), scientific glassblowing is just becoming more niche, not vanishing from the face of the earth forever. Cobblers, farriers, bicycle wheelbuilders, etc are all still around, just not in the numbers that they once were.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 7:00 AM on June 27, 2016 [4 favorites]


At least a couple of UK universities had glassblowers and apprentices 20 years ago; I knew several.

Thing is, it was also one of those interactions that was quintessentially British - professors, postdocs and PhD students from working class background through to minor nobility, in a professional context, they all treated the almost-always working-class glassblowers with respect because they respected their craft.

Chemistry - at least lab based chemistry - is a very manual profession, and people really respect tool and instrument builders. People have argued that the history of science - and definitely of chemistry - should not be focused around esoteric theory testing and discoveries, but the construction of tools.

(Warning, that second link is like TV tropes for nerds).


Insert obligatory, "Allegedly they knew how to blow a really good bong". Allegedly, cough.
posted by lalochezia at 7:01 AM on June 27, 2016 [11 favorites]


I love the craft of it (I've been given the chance to try it just for funsies, and damn is it hard to do even the simplest things), and I loved that we could get stuff repaired rather than buying new glassware, but this is basically an article wistfully bemoaning the fate of buggy manufacturers in the automobile world; there's still a need, but it's very small and niche.

I read it entirely different because they're hiring a replacement - they just didn't do right by the profession in training anybody. This is not so much about whether craft glassware has value - clearly it does if they're willing to pay someone to do it - but rather how one operates ethically in an industry.

It's a phenomenon that occurs in other industries as well - the "big guys" don't want to train anyone and will just steal who they can from everyone else because it's cheaper that way for them if they just pay 5% more than the little guy can.

Gerhart was 71, which means they had 6-11 years worth of notice that a successor was going to be required in the near future. With their two year experience floor, they realistically only had to get an apprentice two years ago to have an in-house successor. In the article, Gerhart jokes in the article that "Looks like we have to steal somebody." For companies/institutions hiring the people with 0-2 years experience, they're investing in the learning curve and then CalTech with its foundation/grant money comes in and steals their staff.

This is not about outdated practices and luxuries - this is about shitty corporate ethical practices. CalTech are acting like a parasite, rather than a member of a research community and a supporter of the development of master craftspeople.
posted by scrittore at 7:03 AM on June 27, 2016 [23 favorites]


When I did my PhD, I worked in the lab of a professor who had been a PhD student of Konrad Bloch. He was classically trained and often created his own glassware. I picked up a little of it - not blowing glass but assembling glass tubes and other components to make reaction vessels. It truly is a lost art. In biochemistry, at least the academic departments where I have been, this has largely disappeared as the study of metabolism has been displaced by molecular biology.

It was standard practice in the lab to re-purify the reagents bought from chemical suppliers such a Sigma, Aldrich, Mallinckrodt and other. I frequently draw a blank stare from a doctoral student or post-doc whenever I ask about how they determined the purity and identity of their reagents.
posted by sudogeek at 7:08 AM on June 27, 2016 [6 favorites]


This is not about outdated practices and luxuries - this is about shitty corporate ethical practices. CalTech are acting like a parasite, rather than a member of a research community and a supporter of the development of master craftspeople.

ding ding ding ding!
posted by odinsdream at 7:11 AM on June 27, 2016 [5 favorites]


This has been going on for decades. In the early 90s I worked at a big pharmaceutical research facility and there was a glassblowing lab in the basement. It was presided over by a 70-something guy who had actually already retired and been coaxed to come back. He papered the walls and door with posters and flyers extolling the virtues of being retired. He was grumpy about even being there, but they were hanging on to him for dear life because he couldn't be replaced.

I remember wishing I could get into that. But I couldn't figure out how you'd do it. Especially since I was female - that whole floor was a male bastion and I had no excuse to be there.
posted by elizilla at 7:21 AM on June 27, 2016


He was grumpy about even being there, but they were hanging on to him for dear life because he couldn't be replaced.

Just to hit this point home, this was a fucking lie they were telling. Of course he was replaceable. But, that costs money which they were refusing to pay.
posted by odinsdream at 7:23 AM on June 27, 2016 [11 favorites]


Seriously? It's unethical to offer people a good job at an R1 university? Good grief. May we all be so unfortunately plagued.

Out of curiosity: where is the line? Who can they ethically hire as a regular job opening, and who needs to be trained in-house?
posted by Dr.Enormous at 7:23 AM on June 27, 2016 [3 favorites]


Yeah, you don't own your staff, and neither does anyone else. Complaints about 'poaching employees' always piss me off because that's how those employees advance their careers - if you stop doing that, everyone's career becomes stagnant and there's no incentive for anyone to pay more than a minimum maintenance wage.

Also, training people up isn't a guarantee that they'll work for you. It's entirely possible that if they'd trained their own guy they'd have jumped ship for a better offer, too.
posted by Mitrovarr at 7:27 AM on June 27, 2016 [4 favorites]


Corning, New York is a place that trains a lot of glass blowers, but you probably can't get a degree there. Most of them are training for studio or craft work, but I would bet that's a superset of what you would need to do the lab ware.
posted by newdaddy at 7:33 AM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


Seriously? It's unethical to offer people a good job at an R1 university? Good grief. May we all be so unfortunately plagued.

Imagine if they'd offered someone a good job at an R1 university a decade ago in conjunction with Gerhart, specifically as his some-day replacement. Not only do they nearly double the capacity of their shop, but they don't have to go through this process under the threat of a guy in his 60s suddenly falling victim to the actuarial tables.

Ah, but that would have cost them a few bucks, so fuuuck that.
posted by Etrigan at 7:45 AM on June 27, 2016 [5 favorites]


Bizarrely, I know a guy in London who's literally just had his own long-standing scientific glassblowing business blown out of the water in this delightful Brexit-y weather we've been having. He posted a somewhat desperate "anyone likely to need these extremely specialised skills" request for jobs on Facebook, so I passed him the details of this thread. 10 minutes later he's submitted an application for the job.

I don't know enough about the profession to know if he's in with a genuine chance, but it's an interesting hope for him at least. Once again I find myself extremely grateful to Metafilter and CrystalDave in particular - I'm really glad you posted this, and not just because it was a good read :)
posted by PeteTheHair at 8:05 AM on June 27, 2016 [31 favorites]


Yeah, you don't own your staff, and neither does anyone else. Complaints about 'poaching employees' always piss me off because that's how those employees advance their careers - if you stop doing that, everyone's career becomes stagnant and there's no incentive for anyone to pay more than a minimum maintenance wage.

Nobody's saying anybody owns their employees - however, when an R1 institution has years notice to train apprentices under a true master of his craft and, instead, chooses to poach someone trained by another company/institution - they've knowlingly offloaded the cost of training to somebody else.

This is why the #1 argument why businesses do not create entry-level jobs - because people don't stay and it costs the business to train people. This would be fine if it was everyone poaching and training - but large institutions have recognized that smaller firms/institutions have to train people in order to have anyone and thus no longer invest in developing their own employees. This creates masses of young people who then crowd into the few entry-level positions available and...push down wages across the board. This parasitic behavior only benefits one entity in the system.

Put another way - 100 years ago, nearly everyone received paid on-the-job training. Apprenticing was common in nearly every field. Now, most jobs come with a 2-5 year experience requirement and people rely on low-paid assembly line work, unpaid internships, volunteering, or discounted "co-op" schooling to get experience for a handful of the "good" jobs.

Finally - imagine the institutional and craft knowledge lost having had someone in the top 5% of his field unable to have a steady stream of apprentices. I can't imagine a single field where new entrants would be better off working in a production line environment (Chemglass) vs. working alongside one of the best. If this leads to a lower quality product, it would be easy to not see the difference between mass produced Chemglass and having a master craftsman and cut the position entirely in the future.
posted by scrittore at 8:20 AM on June 27, 2016 [12 favorites]


Are we not doing the "eponysterical" joke any more?
posted by biogeo at 8:24 AM on June 27, 2016 [2 favorites]


Insert obligatory, "Allegedly they knew how to blow a really good bong". Allegedly, cough.

I recently took a borosilicate glass blowing class at a studio run by a University of Minnesota trained scientific glassblower who, while he does take custom orders for purely scientific purposes, has definitely found that his skills are um, transferrable.

It wasn't until I took the class that I even realized that scientific glass was ever still made by hand.
posted by sparklemotion at 8:42 AM on June 27, 2016 [3 favorites]


I have a friend who's an art glass artist (and makes a living wage at it, he's very good and well-known) but he also does a sideline in scientific glass. There are several local labs (corporate, government, and collegiate) who mostly don't need custom blown glass but every now and then they DO, and they can get it from him quickly and iteratively if necessary for a lot less hassle than having it shipped from a far off place. He likes the challenge of it and the change in his work, and he makes a nice steady small wage at it that helps even out the art glass business. (He also teaches classes and does corporate awards and all the other stuff artists do these days to maintain reliable income streams.)

The super-intricate stuff they still have to hire a specialist from far away but he's able to do a lot of the more routine stuff.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:49 AM on June 27, 2016 [2 favorites]


Nobody's saying anybody owns their employees - however, when an R1 institution has years notice to train apprentices under a true master of his craft and, instead, chooses to poach someone trained by another company/institution - they've knowlingly offloaded the cost of training to somebody else.

Yeah, but they have to pay for that by offering the person they hire a better wage. If they didn't do that there wouldn't be that better opportunity available for that person from they smaller organization. Also, if the big organizations trained their own people, the availability of trainees for the smaller programs would go down, and they might just not be able to get anyone at all. Or maybe everyone trains and then you get too many people in the field and wages tank.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:18 AM on June 27, 2016


All of the university trades are deskilling, glass-blowing being just one. Where support shops used to be commonplace in any decent university, now they're essentially contract shops housed on site, in most cases. No benefit to not just hiring the lowest bidder, and I suspect that's what all the free-market beancounters want anyway.

the reality is that Chemglass makes almost anything you'd ever need, and you custom order the very rare weird outliers.

There's few reasons this is not the best approach. Firstly, if you're using anything that's decently expensive, it's often cheaper to get it repaired than buy new. Fix a broken seal on a 5x fractional distillation head and reanneal? Less than $100 and done in a day. Buy new? Special order for $1200 and three to six weeks delivery. Students can be expensive.

Secondly, and more importantly to me, we do stuff with glass that no one has done before. We make test jars that have gone on to become international standards, but which were designed tested and validated in my lab. That took years of testing and many, many variations in glassware. It was so much easier to work with our local guy* and get him to make and then tweak the dozens of designs we came up with. We're doing a series of successor tests now and it's much more difficult and slow to work with one of the contract glass fabs by mail. But there's no one local anymore. Science glass is pretty much a dead art in my town with two research universities, two huge campuses of federal labs, and several major industrial labs. Hard to fathom, but there we are.

*hearthpig, we could well be talking about the same guy here. If your guy was John, he's now retired and makes artglass stuff sold at a shop in Manotick run by a friend of his. He still does some stuff for me sometimes for beer money.
posted by bonehead at 10:06 AM on June 27, 2016 [14 favorites]


At my alma mater Harvey Mudd, they still include glass blowing as part of the requirements for a Chemistry degree

That sounds so cool. I'm still disappointed at William & Mary (my alma mater) for failing to incorporate glassblowing, or any of the actually-interesting parts of Colonial Williamsburg into the curriculum.
posted by schmod at 10:12 AM on June 27, 2016


We had to do the same in the mid-eighties at McMaster. My niece going through a very similar chemistry program now though, says that they don't do it anymore as it's considered too dangerous.

I've noticed that with the undergrad and even grad students we've been getting now too---no one wants to mod their stuff, they just want to buy solutions. This isn't a reflection on the kids, they're no worse (or better) than always, but it's like talking to an artist who's never been told about the colour black. It doesn't occur to them to try to make their own stuff or modify existing equipment. Or if it does, they think that they can't do it themselves, even simple things like drill a hole or cut some glass. They have to be trained into it (and they have little skill for it either).
posted by bonehead at 10:19 AM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


The scientific glassblowing community is not very large, doubly so in Canada. Bruce, Simon Fraser university's glassblower personally knew every other glassblower I'd met, no matter where they worked. Also, the fact they have six applicants doesn't mean there isn't a shortage: Simon Fraser had to hire Bruce from another university, and McMaster's glassblower isn't good enough to do air sensitive chemistry, so they outsource that to the glassblower at Western.

On a note, Simon Fraser University no longer appears to have a glassblower (which sucks: Bruce is a great guy), so if any of you ARE scientific glassblowers who are good enough to make/repair vacuum lines or at least repair them, please look into cold-calling the chemistry department here. We've suddenly got a lot of broken glass we can't get fixed.

Bruce once and a while held basic classes on scientific glassblowing so people would know what it did. I asked him about it, but never got a chance before he left.
posted by Canageek at 10:25 AM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


...says that they don't do it anymore as it's considered too dangerous.

Again, with the lies. All to save a buck.
posted by odinsdream at 10:39 AM on June 27, 2016


Seriously? It's unethical to offer people a good job at an R1 university? Good grief. May we all be so unfortunately plagued.

A state and federally funded institution that is held up as a flagship university has an obligation beyond just being awesome for itself, it serves as a supportive entity and as an example to other institutions. A flagship university doesn't poach a specialty employee like this to make up for their deliberate bad planning, they realize the gem they have on their hands and apprentice two people to him while they still have him to replace him when he is gone and to spread his skills to another university through the extra apprentice. A flagship university is not a leech or self-serving, they help bring up the quality of education in their university cohort.
posted by Foam Pants at 11:47 AM on June 27, 2016 [10 favorites]


Noooooooo not the glassblower! That dude was a legend of my childhood! Dammit!

Re: academic administrative idiocy and Caltech in particular: A relative of mine held the job of K-12 educational outreach for all NSF grants at Caltech. This is a position required by the terms of NSF grants. It is also awesome, because it means doing things like making sure kids get access to educational materials and trips to places like the Palomar telescope. At one point, Caltech decided they didn't need the position. When it was pointed out to them that it was a requirement of the grant, they basically shrugged and said "we're Caltech. What are you going to do about it?" When my relative left, they replaced her with someone who was on medical leave and couldn't speak after having a stroke, I think.

I grew up on campus and knew many wonderful, kind, inspiring professors there. But the place also has a pigheaded streak a mile wide.
posted by gusandrews at 12:02 PM on June 27, 2016 [4 favorites]


Social media videos have sparked new interest in the craft, Briening said.

YouTube may be crummy in some ways but tutorial videos are a blessing. So many people are being exposed to possibilities they might never have imagined.
posted by gusandrews at 12:25 PM on June 27, 2016


When people disagree with you thaey are not automatically "lying"
posted by thelonius at 12:52 PM on June 27, 2016 [2 favorites]


My university had it's glassblower retire 5 years ago at the age of 72, and our new president nixed hiring a replacement because of 'budgetary constraints'. She then gave her handpicked upper level administrators a $3.25M raise and spent $150,000, more than his salary, on housekeeping for her college-supplied apartment.
posted by overhauser at 1:31 PM on June 27, 2016 [6 favorites]


Directly related to the first post, by GenjiandProust, I can tell one of my favourite stories.

There's this university, see, and it's been going for centuries, maybe a millenium. And one day, it turns out the beams of the roof of one of it's great halls is rotten. Termites or somesuch, but that's not important. The fact is that the great big huge immense beams need to be replaced.

But where can they get such huge wooden beams from? Turns out Scandinavia has logged to such an extent that they don't have anything that big anymore. Neither does Russia, or the US ... not anymore. Even Africa and Latin america have been logging at such a pace that these mighty beams can't be replaced.

So, during the staff meeting were all these failures are being discussed comes a gruff cough and all eyes fall on the groundskeeper. Who then says: "Well, when this place was endowed and built, all those centuries ago, there was a place which came attached and could never be used or sold. They planted a forrest there ...".
posted by MacD at 1:31 PM on June 27, 2016 [7 favorites]


I'm not sure if you're referring to my comment following on from bonehead's or not. In case you are, I do want to clarify I wasn't saying bonehead was lying, but rather that their niece's chemistry program is lying by saying that teaching glasswork is "too dangerous."
posted by odinsdream at 1:31 PM on June 27, 2016


Not the first time it's become a problem.

Back before it became feasible to have zoos, and botanical gardens in climates far removed from the habitat of their collections, Harvard paid to make glass replicas of tropical orchids.

The glass orchids cannot be reproduced by any glass artisan today.
posted by ocschwar at 1:33 PM on June 27, 2016 [2 favorites]


Using the "acting in the best interests of the scientific community" standard cuts both ways. Why are grad students and postdocs expected to suck up ungodly working hours and conditions for a pittance? To spread knowledge and serve Science! (the idealized concept); the ones who don't think this way mostly realize it's a raw deal and go find something more honest--like lawyering. When you stop treating this as an employer-employee relationship, but something more noble or grand, you create excuses to do crappy things as well.

It's a simple employer-employee transaction: old dude retires, new one is hired...something that happens all over the world millions of times without incident. Were this not at the intersection of art and Science!, there wouldn't even be an article about it, much less a thread.

I ask again: by this standard, who is a university ethically allowed to just hire through totally normal "hey we're hiring a person" processes? Is a carpenter with experience building lab benches ok, or do they need to train him up too? The office coordinator who knows who to call in NIH and can get all the grant paperwork done perfectly in half the time? The maintenance guy who knows how to work on fume hoods?
posted by Dr.Enormous at 1:38 PM on June 27, 2016 [2 favorites]


bonehead: "We had to do the same in the mid-eighties at McMaster. My niece going through a very similar chemistry program now though, says that they don't do it anymore as it's considered too dangerous."

Whaa? Is there anything less dangerous in hands on chemistry than glass blowing?
posted by Mitheral at 1:48 PM on June 27, 2016


New beams for the hall (or the benefit of having a institute forester).
posted by Mitheral at 1:55 PM on June 27, 2016 [2 favorites]


I've been keeping the Periodic Table videos running in the background a lot while I work. The one on xenon compounds was interesting, not least because Neil Bartlett, the chemist who won a Nobel Prize for finding xenon compounds, used some frankly artistically-stunning custom glassware to do the prize-winning research, and he also suffered permanent partial blindness from exploding glass shards when another experiment went wrong. Glass offers interesting intersections of art and science and craft and danger in the pursuit of knowledge.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 2:01 PM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


by this standard, who is a university ethically allowed to just hire through totally normal "hey we're hiring a person" processes?

There's a couple of factors, as I see it:

a) degree of specialization needed: are the skills broadly transferable to or from other contexts?
b) availability of training: is it easy to find the necessary training elsewhere?
c) type of training required: does this skill require extensive on-the-job experience to perform at the required level?

In this case, the article suggests that the answers here are no, no, and yes, respectively, which is where you get the calls for apprenticeship. More broadly, it's certainly good practice for an organization to offer on-the-job training for any position regardless, but the availability of training question which really pushes it to the forefront. If there was a healthy existing ecosystem for the training of scientific glassblowers, it wouldn't matter as much whether the university had offered training themselves or not. The article suggests that there isn't.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 2:42 PM on June 27, 2016 [3 favorites]


Dr.Enormous: "
I ask again: by this standard, who is a university ethically allowed to just hire through totally normal "hey we're hiring a person" processes? Is a carpenter with experience building lab benches ok, or do they need to train him up too?
"

As a first pass the university (any reasonable large organisation really) can take a look and say "Hey, our electrician Gay is turning 65 in three years. Maybe we should get someone in here to be the recipient of knowledge transfer from the person with 30+ years working on our systems." They don't necessarily have to be an apprentice (it takes several years as a journeyman to really be competent) but they should be enabling a year or more of on the job training to have their systems run smoothly. The more specialized the service the longer the planned overlap.

Sure you'll also have to replace people who get hit by the lottery or actual bus. And people will leave without much notice for a variety of reasons. But not hiring to ease the transition of someone several years past the standard retirement age? That is just leaving low hanging fruit on the tree.

I don't know how it works in the states but here a large public or arms length organization is much more likely to not even post the job until after the retiree leaves. Forget knowledge transfer; the new person spends the first six months of their employment trying to catch up on the backlog created by 6-8 weeks of a position being unfilled.

Or they contract out these mission critical positions. BC Hydro (who generates and distributes most of the electrical power in my province) has been busy contracting out much of their maintenance for a couple decades now. This has backfired on them in two ways. First they are running into the "all our experienced guys are retiring" thing. But they've also been bit by contractors not bidding because of lucrative work elsewhere. They were pissed right off when most of their contractor staff went to the US east coast to rebuild after Sandy and they couldn't get anyone to even bid on their projects.
posted by Mitheral at 3:21 PM on June 27, 2016 [2 favorites]


The story of Oxford's New College's beams has been told by everybody from Stewart Brand to David Cameron, but New College archivist Jennifer Thorp has been debunking it for years. Maybe we can call it an allegory or a fable, since it's a wonderful illustration of how planning could work.
posted by Songdog at 3:50 PM on June 27, 2016 [6 favorites]


It's weird, because there is a genuine case of such long term planning -- for hundreds of years, the Ise-Jingū was rebuilt every 20 years with timber from protected groves dedicated for that purpose. The groves stopped being maintained for a long time, but a hundred years ago the Shrine began to restore them. During the last rebuilding, some of them were finally big enough for the smaller timbers, and in a hundred years more they will be able to build the whole temple from them.
posted by tavella at 4:03 PM on June 27, 2016 [4 favorites]


I ask again: by this standard, who is a university ethically allowed to just hire through totally normal "hey we're hiring a person" processes?

Maybe there's a reason no one felt like engaging with your PHIL101 slippery slope argument the first time.
posted by Etrigan at 4:07 PM on June 27, 2016 [3 favorites]


To paraphrase Pterry: it doesn't even matter whether the story is true or not. It should be.

The reason I love the tale is not because of any truth to it (although I love the fact tavella has found a case where it factually is). I even tried to phrase it more as a fable than the 'true story' I heard it first as. The thing is that it demonstrates that deep-future thinking can be very important, that some people can think ahead beyond their mere lives.

My misanthropic side would even say: I love the fact that someone, somewhere, somewhen could think something through to such an extent that they could say: "fuck your shortsightedness: we thought long and hard and here is your answer from beyond the grave. Now suck it and please try to do the same.".

To bring it back to the topic at hand: an institution which thinks it will survive at least beyond ONE generation has an obligation to think in terms of generation>S<. They should look at what they use (be it materials or knowledge or skills) and asses how much of it they posses and if they would need more of it in the future and take action to ensure they have enough of it as time goes by. That should be at least half of their function. And if they don't ... fucking fire them and claw back any bonuses, because they have not been doing their job.

These kinds of organisations NEED to have a skill matrix, which includes a timeline. What do we have now, will we need it in the future, how do we ensure we keep that skill/knowledge/resource?

If you can't do that, you have no business in a long term organisation.
posted by MacD at 6:52 PM on June 27, 2016


There's a number of custom science glass-blowing places in Southern California. This isn't science reporting from the LAT, it's a heart-warming human interest story.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:30 PM on June 27, 2016


*closes tab for glass-blowing class signup*
posted by padraigin at 8:44 PM on June 27, 2016


As much as I appreciated having the glassblower on campus when I was doing research at a university that had one, the reality is that they are basically a luxury, not a necessity, for 99.9% of modern research, so it's hardly short-sighted.

It's short-sighted if the research is being trimmed to what can be done without custom equipment.

I had a professor who did stable isotope work, and every couple of years did it with custom glasswork -- I had the pleasure of holding some tools while he made a wall of glasswork literally incorporating a few irreplacable samples, archaeological samples from what's a modern war zone. (The stratigraphy is gone, and maybe the rest of the material.) It wasn't really his field, archaeology, though he liked it; but it took custom glassblowing to do it, so he got the samples and took the time.
posted by clew at 11:48 PM on June 27, 2016 [3 favorites]


To paraphrase Pterry: it doesn't even matter whether the story is true or not. It should be.

Actually, it does matter. If you want a fable, make it a fable -- the lesson would be just as true -- when you ascribe it to a particular person or place, you are muddling history. It's not like "The Tortise and the Hare" doesn't work unless we believe that it was a particular tortoise and a particular hare (and, I suppose, a particular sporting organization).

Please, do not make the archivists and historians cry. That is what their administrators are for.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:02 AM on June 28, 2016 [6 favorites]


Ideefixe: Read the article. They checked number of registered scientific glassblowers, and university numbers. There are less being employed, and less being trained. Yes, there are more private companies, but those are a lot more expensive to work with (for obvious reasons). I also wouldn't say it is true that 90% of science doesn't use custom glass: Once you factor in repairs, all of a sudden you are looking at a lot of science using repaired glass, since.

(Also my lab uses all custom vacuum lines that my boss designed, that are far nicer then the standard key based ones. 6-8 taps, all the tabs on an angle so you can see what position they are in, and Konteasse teflon valves instead of keys, so everything is interchangable.)
posted by Canageek at 1:40 PM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


Ideefixe: "There's a number of custom science glass-blowing places in Southern California. This isn't science reporting from the LAT, it's a heart-warming human interest story."

An offsite commercial provider for a specialized service like this isn't a 100% replacement for having on site service. On site personnel are less subject to espionage, can be weedled to queue jump, can have a much faster turn around time for incremental changes, and may not be beholden to strict cost accounting. They can also provide valuable insights that could put a contractor working for multiple accounts into a conflict of interest.
posted by Mitheral at 3:23 PM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


@GenjiandProust:

"If you want a fable, make it a fable -- the lesson would be just as true -- when you ascribe it to a particular person or place, you are muddling history"

Uhm ... I did. Or didn't. Whichever.

I purposely described it as a story. I purposely did not mention a time or place. Or a person ... . Seriously, how much more do you need to imply fable-dom? A 'once upon a time...'?

So, thanks for calling me out ... but it just seems quite unnecessary.

And as tavella pointed out ... it did happen. Which makes me happy on a fundamentally human level. Just because these things almost always don't.
posted by MacD at 5:55 PM on July 4, 2016


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