Craftsmanship, College, and Conceit

California_Institute_of_Technology_Logo-200x200A 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.”)

16 thoughts on “Craftsmanship, College, and Conceit

  1. John M.

    You’d better believe that every reason this guy never got an apprentice has a picture of George Washington on it.

    I’d wager that plenty of folks there would have had this guys relatively handsome salary added to their budget, but axing people is harder than axing a redwood. So they waited for his retirement and now they get to war over the windfall of his retirement and lab closure.

    -John M.

    1. Emblematic

      Don’t worry, the Chinese will fill the gap and do so at a price point that will eventually shutter the program at Salem Community College. Then the knowledge and skill set necessary to perform this critical function will disappear from these shores. Research on the bleeding edge will, of course, have to be fully revealed so that the Chinese glass blowers can properly fabricate the necessary vessels. I’m sure that the Chinese contractors, wholly owned subsidiaries of the Party, will be more than happy to sign the necessary NDAs. What could possibly go wrong?

    2. Hognose Post author

      Being it’s Caltech, the space his lab was in, even though it’s a basement, is probably prime real estate too.

  2. Brian M.

    Glassware has mystical power to organic chemists. There’s a scene in the first episode of “Breaking Bad”, where Walter White excitedly geeks out about glassware he scored, which is really accurate.

    Scientific glassblowing is increasingly a niche field even for the niche field that is chemistry. Cutting edge analytical chemistry has for the most part moved on from bulk fluids being moved around and the classical techniques use standardized glassware. Air-free synthesis needs complicated glassware, but it’s hard to justify an entire chemistry department paying for a glassblower when just two or three research groups need his skill level. The other groups just need basic repairs, if anything, and glassware is so cheap repairs aren’t cost effective for most standard items.

    When a glassblower at a university is allowed to retire without replacement or let go, the organometallics groups scream their heads off, the organic chemists complain loudly, and everyone else shrugs. That’s entirely based on need (and some nostalgia). The tough builds can be contracted out, but there’s nothing like sitting down face to face with the glassblower to hash things out. There are times where the glassblower’s experience and intuition can make or break a project.

    Maybe 1% of the time where you need to go really old school and make a piece of glassware that hasn’t been made in a long time, or you must have some bizarre air-free design–for those you’ll have to talk to a guy a thousand miles away instead of just walking downstairs.

    1. Acme_Rocket

      Coming from a synthetic organic background, I would also add that most times glass shop work is unnecessary. Most of the cutting edge research being done is all about using simple procedures to make the compound you want (i.e. tolerates air & water). Sure, a custom piece of glassware might save you some time at the bench, but is it worth the cost?

      In my experience, the only time you absolutely need a scientific glassblower is when you need to design a quartz glass apparatus.

      1. Christopher

        Which is why we have our own glass shop. Unfortunately, we had our current glassblower train with his predecessor (who was not particularly detail oriented and got lazy over the years) instead of the guy at our joint venture, who was much better.

        We buy most of our Pyrex from a shop nearby.

    2. archy

      ***Scientific glassblowing is increasingly a niche field even for the niche field that is chemistry. Cutting edge analytical chemistry has for the most part moved on from bulk fluids being moved around and the classical techniques use standardized glassware. Air-free synthesis needs complicated glassware, ***

      Oh, c’mon. How complicated can this stuff be. Surely they can train trade school kids to do it.

  3. Boat Guy

    Cal Tech IS “prime real-estate” no doubt. Just as there’s no doubt it’s currently administered by overpaid, overbearing SJW’s.
    Sad. My Dad is a CalTech graduate (with a sabbatical that included “study” in Korea as an Artillery Battery XO and aerial observer).

  4. Ken

    Why don’t they just make a robot to do it or write some code or something? No, wait, get the robot making robot to make a glass blowing robot. This is what I keep hearing from the Progs; soon humans will never have to work again.

    1. John M.

      The Progressives aren’t always wrong. (In fact, one would have only gone broke betting against them once in the last four centuries of English-speaking history.) If you look at US industrial output over the last several decades, output has increased (in economic terms), while employment in the manufacturing sector has been declining. Fairies didn’t make that happen: software and robots did.

      Software already writes a lot of news articles, formulaic stuff like summaries of sporting events (“Jones helped with two home runs, one in the sixth and one in the ninth”) and reporting on public company earnings releases. And journalism is one of those “knowledge work” jobs that wasn’t supposed to get eaten by robots. I’m led to understand that accounting and lawyering are next on the list. If you’re a truck driver or counting on driving Uber to pay your kids’ college tuition, make a new plan.

      For all that I disagree with them on political topics, both Bill Gates and Elon Musk are worried about this. Both of them are VERY smart and know more than me about what’s happening in these areas.

      -John M.

    2. John Distai

      Artificial intelligence and machine learning will put everyone out of business.

  5. staghounds

    The school’s mission might be STEM, but the individual missions of its administrators appear to be empire building. Parkinson’s Law always triumphs once there are a thousand employees.

    Interesting article and a fun example of how institutions miss planning for the future. Always have a replacement!

  6. Mike_C

    >the Foundation For Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) rates Caltech “yellow.”
    Speaking of diversity, a while back the admissions director at an elite NorCal school, in response to allegations that east Asians were being kept out of elite schools (by emphasizing non-academic aspects in the admission process), said flat out: “Of course. If we simply went by test scores and GPAs, our entering classes would be 30% east Asian, 30% Jewish, 30% ‘regular whites’ and the remaining 10% would be the official minorities we are forced to accept because of Affirmative Action.” I can only imagine that said admissions director had just won the lottery, married a ketchup heiress, or something, because mokita. So yeah, CalTech is pretty “yellow”. (And the running joke was that “MIT” stands for “Made in Taiwan”.)

    Incidentally, CalTech transfer students tended to stand out at MIT, as smarter, and nerdier, than average. It may have been a strange sample-bias/low numbers issue, but it takes a lot to stand out as extra-nerdy, or extra-bright, at MIT.

    As to prime real estate, supposedly one CalTech hobby was to just go and walk around the local neighborhoods dressed in typically shabby college-guy (or worse, STEM grad student) clothes, and see how long it took before some area resident called the police to come and take care of the “vagrants” lowering property values. And the police would show up, because it was that sort of wealthy area where calls were responded to promptly.

  7. atp

    I wonder if similar things are going on with university machinists. I suspect so, although to a lesser extent, as their field is a much larger niche. As an experimental physicist, my wife often had to design her own parts. Her lab had access to ONE full-time machinist, who was very good, and in her stories, pretty regularly saved the PhDs (and PhD students) from expensive screwups. And when the eggheads DID royally screw up a design or fabrication, it typically turned out that they’d never bothered to consult the blue-collar master craftsman at all…

  8. Chris S.

    Both of my parents were professors at Caltech for 30 years or more, until my father died in 1990, and my mother retired shortly after that. I met a lot of interesting people during those years, but I guess Gerhart came along a couple of years later. It’s interesting to me that there are still people in this age who practice arcane disciplines.

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