A fascinating story in the Los Angeles Times (of all places) describes what the imminent retirement of 71-year-old Rick Gerhart means to CalTech, the prominent science and engineering school.
CalTech scientists depend on Gerhart’s craft. He is one of the world’s most creative and experienced scientific glass blowers, able to construct and repair the bespoke scientific equipment that you might need if you were doing cutting-edge chemical, chemical-engineering, or biological research.
When he retired the glass-blowing lab might have to close, as the one at Cal State Los Angeles did.
The article explores at length what might happen when Gerhart retires, but it never addresses why the university never hired an apprentice to learn the craft and take it over from him. The question doesn’t seem to have occurred to the reporter, Rosanna Xia.
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.”
There just aren’t as many scientific glassblowers anymore, and certainly not ones that have Rick’s level of experience.
— Sarah Reisman, professor of chemistry
Rick Gerhart, scientific glass blower at Caltech, has been helping to make scientific research possible at the campus since 1992. Gerhart plans to retire, and the school is searching for someone to take his place.
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.
It was the heyday of scientific glass blowing. The craft, which dates back to alchemy in the 2nd century, took hold in America by the 1930s and 1940s, after World War I cut off glassware supply from Germany. Glass — Pyrex and quartz in particular — remains popular because it can withstand high heat, reacts with very few elements and is transparent, allowing researchers to observe chemical processes.
The profession peaked after World War II, when booms in oil and government-funded research opened up numerous glass blowing jobs in many a lab. Scientific glass blowers didn’t only make research equipment, they created glass parts for such inventions as the laser printer.
At first, Gerhart hopped around a number of firms and worked alongside more experienced glass blowers at TRW Inc. and UCLA.
When he settled at Caltech in 1992, the glass blower before him handed over the key to the shop and said, “Good luck.” On his own, Gerhart pieced together his patchwork of experience to twist and fuse glass beakers and snake glass coils over vacuum chambers.
In a production line, a glass blower might make the same product every day, “I was doing something a little different every time,” he said. “That’s when I really started learning.”
These opportunities to learn on the job are now limited, though interest has not waned: This year, Salem Community College graduated 31 glass blowers — for years, the school graduated about 20 each year — and it expects 66 incoming students next school year. Social media videos have sparked new interest in the craft, Briening said.
But while his students have no trouble getting entry-level jobs at companies like Chemglass Life Sciences, a glass manufacturer, and General Electric Global Research, rarely are universities willing to budget the overhead costs for more than one glassblower, if any.
It’s a remarkable and fascinating article, so do go Read The Whole Thing™.
But why didn’t Cal Tech just hire one of the graduates from the only school in the nation to teach this skill, that New Jersey community college, to learn from Gerhart? Xia never tells you, but we will: priorities.
There are hints of it in Xia’s article:
- “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.”
- “rarely are universities willing to budget the overhead costs for more than one glassblower, if any.”
Yet, only a seasoned craftsman can do what Gerhart does. Gerhart himself was out of Salem’s glass-blowing program for 27 years before landing at Caltech. It would seem like a no-brainer to give him a student to mentor. Except Caltech ought to have done it ten years ago.
So here’s the reason they didn’t:
They didn’t want to.
It was not a priority.
So what is a priority?
Diversity. An all-overhead all-the-time Center for Diversity gets resources that Caltech is no longer willing to waste on archaic stuff like making apparatus for its scientists. It’s constantly hiring more and more executives, who are expected to be doctrinaire diversicrats but don’t really have to know anything about the school’s STEM mission: one 2015 job listing for a six-figures salary “Senior Director for Caltech Center for Diversity” put “an ongoing interest in science and knowledge about many of the scientific and technical topics that are regularly covered at Caltech” into the “nice to have,” but not necessary, “preferred qualifications” bin.
The depredations of the diversicrats are one reason the Foundation For Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) rates Caltech “yellow.” The free-speech-promoting nonprofit identifies three Caltech policies that “that too easily encourage administrative abuse and arbitrary application.”(It could be worse, though. Back in 2009, the speech codes, etc., were so extreme the university was rated “red.”)