Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Caltech glassblower's retirement has scientists sighing (latimes.com)
301 points by wallflower on June 27, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 165 comments

While unfortunate, Caltech had years to let the current glassblowr train a replacement - it's not like this was an unforeseeable event.

While it's unfortunate that it's a struggle to find a replacement now - and from the outside I don't know what went on leading up to this - I can't help but think if they'd set the budget for it a decade ago, they wouldn't be in this situation.

Now we need a massive governmental program to encourage children to become scientific glass blowers and promote tons of glass blowing courses on Udacity.

I suspect that when basic income is implemented and people largely don't have vocational fufillment, many people will make functional artisitc works by learning about glass blowing on coursera and other places and mastering such a craft for its own sake.

edit: changed is => when

I have no reason why you are being downvoted; you're making a valid point. One of the reasons I strive to become financially independent of any one company is exactly so I have the freedom to do things like this.

Thanks. I consider myself a capitalist. I have heard SA say[0]; and find myself to agree with how I perceived those remarks, that capitalism is the best paradigm we have to structure the world out of the current choices of organization. That said, there are inherent problems with markets and we can correct for some of those externalities with other things (many outside the scope of this response) but one of which is to equalize for health, food and shelter with a basic income.

As indicated in a recent post on HN there is already a company working on creating an autonomous pizza truck that will prepare hot food in route to a location serving it hot at arrival. Coupled with autonomous vehicle technology, we will soon see the evaportion of labor jobs MUCH quicker than many expect. As we use our resources better, I find that elevating the bottom is important, while still allowing for capitalism and free markets to keep the top uncapped.

Artistic pursuits; as well as things machines can certainly do as well or better than humans, is not only anthropologically important but certainly skills we would want to retain if there were ever to be a failure of mechanization.


I do look like a decent hobby and craft. Probably on par with knifemaking.

given that they have to craft a design for an apparatus based in part on a knowledge of chemistry so they understand the experiment, thermodynamics, as well as material science, etc, I wouldn't be surprised if it's more complex then knifemaking.

> part on a knowledge of chemistry so they understand the experiment, thermodynamics, as well as material science, etc,

By coincidence proper heat treatment requires all of those too :) Depending on how deep you want to plunge.

The difference is that a knife isn't likely to explode, sending hot, toxic gases and acids all over the laboratory.

Not to belabor the point, but Knifemaking _can_ involve exposure to high temperature molten salt baths (Sodium and Nitrate salts), liquid nitrogen, precise timing, temperature control, and varieties of chemical etchants.

It seems that they probably have similar risks, though glassblowing for the lab might require a broader domain knowledge.

You're talking about knife-making, I'm talking about knife-using. While it may be the case that a knife-maker works with high temperatures and toxic substances, it is not the case for a knife-user. Users of laboratory glassware, on the other hand, are constantly risking exposure to this stuff. They depend on high quality glassware to keep them safe.

The consequences for using a poorly-made Erlenmeyer flask are potentially devastating on a far larger scale than for a poorly-made knife.

Naw, its not really a hobby level thing. It is relatively straightforward to take a glassblowing class and make some hobby level glassware... This is a much different level of commitment and skill.

Trump is going to build a dome!

As weed becomes legal in more and more places it could also be a lucrative profession...

on the contrary more and more usable glass art is being blown in mexico or southeast asia, due to cheaper labor, lax oversight and economics.

the equipment is not expensive enough to prevent most apprentices in US/EU/CA to just go out on their own after a while. where as in lower income countries the apprentice is easier to keep for a much longer timeline.

that's lampwork, which is a bit different.

Yeah. On one hand, this is a shame. On the other, it's a problem entirely of their own making, caused by their short-sighted budgeting.

It's like that parable of the monastery that used a main support pillar made from a very massive 80 year old tree. They planted another tree like it on the grounds of the monastery for when it needed to be replaced. A century later, the central pillar is in bad shape, so they cut down the tree and carve a new pillar. ... and never replace the tree they just cut down.

Effective knowledge capture is a huge problem in a lot of fields right now.

I disagree. The real problem is that no one wants to pay for it. The tools are certainly there to capture knowledge, but everyone's trying to cut costs so much in a desire to optimize for the present.

Sounds like you actually agree, and have identified an underlying problem.

The technical ability to capture knowledge, particularly for craft trades like glassblowing, has existed for as long as humans have been organized into societies - it's usually a question of dedicating resources to support it.

The apprenticeship model needs a renaissance.

We need to get away from the dogma that everyone must and will get a college degree. Apprenticeships are as good, if not better, for many fields... especially in the world of software.

Eh, it's going to be hard to replace a proper algorithms or computability class with an apprenticeship. I'd like to see a combined approach, classes in between an apprenticeship-style arrangement.

I don't think all programmers need a proper algorithms class.

Think about construction. There are manual laborers with no domain knowledge that can do basic grunt work for pennies on the dollar, some with domain expertise to guide the grunts, and people that coordinate the entire construction project.

Then there's an entirely separate group of people actually working on architecture... designing the building, ensuring the structure can hold load, meets customer and legal requirements, and can be delivered on a schedule.

At my company, a good SDE1 hire is someone that's at the architecture-level... they might not be able to design a skyscraper but they can design a house. Yet 90%+ of their time will be spent putting up walls and installing plumbing.

That's ridiculous for everyone involved.

They might get the thing done, but they'll do a worse job than someone who also knows about algorithmic complexity, CPU architecture, and other things that benefit from classroom instruction. We're not installing plumbing, we're doing mental work, where context matters. And I can't recommend that anyone aim for less than excellence.

plumbers and electricians, during their apprenticeships spend a LOT of time in classroom environments. they are even required to spend X hours per year to keep their skills up as well.

so i would say they two are in fact very similar. classroom mixed with real world use of that knowledge is better then just sitting in class the entire time with no chance to get real world usage, help and walk-throughs, until after the fact. in which case apprenticeship might be better then a degree.

That's more a disaster of our tooling - that we have menial work still, even though it was regarded bad and avoidable in 1970s with C! (not to mention smalltalk, lisp, etc.).

That doesn't disagree with the GPs comment at all. Whether it's for budgetary reasons or technological ones, the effectiveness of knowledge capture is still a huge problem.

Curious, how would one capture the knowledge of a good glassblower?

As far as I can tell, automation changed manual skills two ways - by capturing and automating simple actions, it decreased the skills needed for a number of jobs but by freeing up resources up resources, it allowed some people to develop skills to a far greater depth than previously for specialized purposes such as science or art.

But capturing the skills of these remaining highly skilled individuals seems like a tough task especially since there's no incentive to build a machine to duplicate their activities - the total value of the product they isn't that high.

On the other hand, if someone figures out a way to 3d print high quality glassware, the whole field would go out the window.

Let's not forget all the people that would love to be the person receiving said information. But again, not happening.

What makes cases like these extra hard is that the only place we know that is kind of knowledge can be stored in is human brains.

If you want a cobol programmer (aside: iOS autocorrects that to cool programmer), get a decent programmer, give him a language reference and half a year of time, and presto! There's your cobol programmer. After all, programming is programming.

If you want a good glassblower, there's no reservoir of people with experience in similar stuff.

Having said that, there is at least one school that educates instrument makers of all kinds; Kamerlingh Onnes started one in Leiden because he needed instrument makers in his cryogenics lab.

I was gonna say...if it's that critical, SURELY they've made him take on an apprentice.

it just wasnt critical to those making budget decisions.

And that is why professional administrators should be in the middle and not on top of things.

To be at the top you must have been in the trenches at least a couple of years.

It's easy to blame things on "professional administrators", but Caltech, like many research universities, is led by accomplished academics who have spent their time in the trenches:



(though I doubt if they were very involved in the decision of when to start looking for a new glassblower)

Then perhaps the problem is exactly the opposite: academia should be led by professional administrators who specialize in higher education? The same way an accomplished & esteemed software engineer may not make a brilliant CEO.

Perhaps nobody actually needs university glass blowers, and the administration made the correct choice? Many of the components that needed to be hand made in the 1960s, can be found scientific catalogs.

You are probably right. The bulk can be bought cheaply. The challenge lies in how to get the special cases covered. The capability for the special cases used to be covered by master craftsmen at the top of a pyramid who leveraged the infrastructure and also educational system of a large workshop. The bulk is gone. The local cross subsidy is gone. And now the local capability is dying off.

In theory modern CAD etc. can help to design. In theory money saved on the bulk can be used to order in a specialized shop.

But it is a difference having a master locally advising mechanically challenged chemistry Ph.D. on the same science team vs.a paid consultant remotely playing for another financial team. And I doubt the saved money will be available for the Ph.D. students.

> In theory modern CAD etc. can help to design

Only if you know the limits of the physical manufacturing process - otherwise you are going to design the perfect bizarre piece that your experiment needs, only to find later that glass blowing can't produce it.

Chemist here. Glassblowers are essential for certain chemists - like organic chemists - mostly for the purposes of fixing essential (and expensive) glassware like vacuum manifolds that often break during the course of daily use. It's less essential for several other fields that fall under the umbrella of chemistry, like theoretical/computational chemistry. The issue is whether it's in the department's interest to subsidize glassblower use for everyone in the department, or have labs outsource glassblowing to a third party. MIT decided to get rid of its glassblowing shop and machine shop about 10 years ago. We were lucky enough to be in Cambridge where a glassblower would come by the lab every thursday and pick up / return items we needed him to fix / make. Given the constant stream of glassware that is being broken, and the cost of replacement of certain items being >$1000 trust me when I say that university glassblowers are extremely busy people.

The chemistry of 30 years ago was different - much more work was done rigorously air-free or under high vacuum. Today there's a much greater focus on the life sciences. Indeed, one supplier changed its name from Chemglass to Chemglass-Lifesciences some ten years back.

That said, access to a glassblower is an infrastructure problem. When you need to consult with one about design of a piece of equipment there's no alternative, and when the guy is in-house turnaround is faster and friction is lower. The difference is: thirty years ago more people in the chemistry department had use for the glassblower, the cost would be spread wider, the budget item would be easier to justify.

Someone mentioned secretaries in this thread. Every faculty member used to employ one for typing, travel arrangements &c. Nowadays everyone types their own manuscripts and books their own travel, so it's difficult to make the case for an assistant. But when a conference comes up and the task to make arrangements for ten speakers falls on one member of faculty you really see why personal assistants are vital infrastructure.

Another funny thing: the majority of labglass factories is located in New Jersey because of the pharma cluster in that state. Pharma has moved out, and likely we'll see closings in the decade ahead.

If nothing you're doing requires custom-built components that you can't buy from a catalog, you're probably not doing very much that's actually new.

The article mentions that other universities order from outside suppliers, who presumably can also do custom orders. It sounds like an incredulous claim to say that nobody in the universities that are listed in the article as not having their own glassblower any more does anything new at all.

An on-site glassblower sounds like (although this is the first time I've heard of such a thing, it's probably specific to chemistry) a perk that is (very) nice to have, but just doesn't fit in today's cost structures. 50 years ago, it was normal for every 'professional' to have a secretary, who would plan meetings, send letters, make coffee etc. Today, how many non-CxO level people have personal secretaries? Having all these support jobs on-site was how it was done but today most places don't even have local IT support (with IT being what replaced most of these support jobs in the first place).

The article mentions there are 50-ish ppl a year graduating the one institute in the whole of the US that teaches glass blowing. That means the demand just isn't there. I mean, there is probably 'demand' in the sense that there is plenty of 'demand' for Ferrari's at $10k / piece, but there is no real demand at proper prices. In other words, if people lament the loss of such jobs but don't want to pay what it costs to replace them, is there really 'demand' or just nostalgia?

> An on-site glassblower sounds like (although this is the first time I've heard of such a thing, it's probably specific to chemistry) a perk that is (very) nice to have, but just doesn't fit in today's cost structures.

Generally, doing new things doesn't fit in today's cost structures. If you're doing stuff that's actually pushing the frontiers of anything, your cost structures will also look different to everyone else's. But there are lots of benefits to have such specialists in-house, primary being that they a) know your specific needs, and b) might actually be invested in your overall goals - as opposed to third parties that often couldn't care less.

> 50 years ago, it was normal for every 'professional' to have a secretary, who would plan meetings, send letters, make coffee etc. Today, how many non-CxO level people have personal secretaries? Having all these support jobs on-site was how it was done but today most places don't even have local IT support (with IT being what replaced most of these support jobs in the first place).

I think secretaries were replaced by computers. I don't know of many professors with personal secretaries, but I also haven't heard of anyone outsourcing these kind of duties to a specialized "secretary-consulting" company. As for IT support, the IT infrastructure in universities generally sucks and tends to go downhill - but that's a longer discussion, and I generally would attribute this to infrastructure being something that has easy-to-count costs and harder-to-count benefits, which makes it an obvious target for various beancounters.

> That means the demand just isn't there.

That's probably true. One university doing novel research does not by itself a market demand make. That's why they should have spent the time and money to have the guy train his replacement on-site.

> If you're doing stuff that's actually pushing the frontiers of anything, your cost structures will also look different to everyone else's.

One of the great failures of modern management theory is the failure to recognize that activities involving new things, things that either haven't been tried before, or doing something old in a new way, is itself an unrepeatable process.

Testing airplanes is a very different activity to manufacturing airplanes, and yet I'm forced to attend innumerable training courses on how Lean/Six Sigma methods can improve my work. There's some merit in this material, but because my employer is forced to be ISO-9001 compliant, it's all forced down my throat without thought given to its appropriateness.

> I think secretaries were replaced by computers.

Specifically, I think they were replaced by good asynchronous communication mediums. That medium used to be paper, which is slow; the fast alternative was synchronous phone calls. (Interestingly, telegraphs were generally asynchronous.) Then the fax and answering machines came and made it a little better. Then computers came, and now I don't need a secretary to call someone else's secretary to make an appointment, I just send a request in Outlook after finding a clear spot on their calendar.

Most professors in the Harvard Physics department still have secretaries.

> it's probably specific to chemistry

Plasma physics too, for making vacuum vessels with various types of electrodes and coils embedded.

> 50 years ago, it was normal for every 'professional' to have a secretary

I've been wondering what change happened that could motivate this. I mean, if it was rational to have a secretary then, and it is rational not to have one now, some circumstance must have changed. Are planning meetings, sending letters, and making coffee that much easier now that they motivate it?

Or a are we making a mistake by not hiring secretaries now? Or was it a mistake to have them?

Things that have changed, off the top of my head:

-- Typing and distributing paper reports used to be a big part of the workday. You needed someone who could not only type an error-free 70+ words per minute, but also who knew how to format documents properly (headers, footers, page numbers, envelopes, etc), and who could take care of the reproduction, packaging and mailing.

-- Setting up meetings would require phoning around to other people, or more likely, their secretaries.

-- Travel arrangements would need to be taken care of manually by calling a travel agent, collecting paper tickets in advance, etc.

-- From the "supply" side, institutionalized gender discrimination meant that there was a steady supply of cheap labor that didn't have a lot of other alternatives, career-wise.

Computers killed the typing pool. The WWW and email killed the need for dedicated support staff for all but the highest-value employees. (Greater) equality in the workplace means that women have other career options, putting upward pressure on compensation for executive assistants.

The other answers missed the rather obvious supply demand shift.

50 years ago there was still a tradition of wartime economy work as hard as possible. Also there was a booming economy so the limited number of grads were in demand and their time was valuable. So even a (then well paid) English Lit prof had minimum wage level tasks to accomplish and the most financially sensible way to get all that work done, especially those lower level tasks, was to hire a secretary for that prof.

Now we overproduce grads such that most grads end up working jobs not requiring any degree, there's 100 applicants for every academic position because there is no booming economy anymore. No more tenure track for anyone who asks, its adjunct prof making less than minimum wage for the lucky tiny fraction of the grads. If the adjunct prof is officially only part time they've got plenty of time for menial work (making coffee etc) and if they are paid adjunct wages it would be hard to justify hiring a secretary who would likely be higher paid than the adjunct! Being a grinder who works hard for endless hours without rocking any boats is how the adjunct got hired to begin with. If the adjunct doesn't like doing menial work, that's OK, there are 99 applicants stuck at Starbucks that would love that academic position. Its a pro sports model where all the rewards go to the very top pro players and everyone else barely survives. Pro sports athletes will be treated extravagantly, but the average athlete is not going to be well treated.

I've wondered the same thing.

I think the cost difference might be an important factor. Secretaries were generally paid a lot less than managers. This was also tied into status. Outside of the military, typing was often seen as women's work, and below the status of a manager.

There was also a much bigger need for typists back then, as much more correspondence was done through the mail. For example, you might write a draft on a typewriter, add hand-written notes with corrections, then retype to get the corrected version to send to your customer. Computers reduce that overhead.

One of the organizers of a scientific meeting I regularly attend says it's harder now to organize the meeting than when he started. It used to be that a company included a general service component to one's job, which could be used to help organize a conference, or review papers. Now, the organizer said, companies want employees to be more focused on the bottom line.

But at best those are hints. They don't answer your questions.

50 years ago, professionals couldn't be bothered to learn how to reach 60 WPM on a typewriter, e-mail didn't exist, and searching for information was a manual process.

Well we have things like Outlook and Word now that automate a lot of the work of a secretary.

> I've been wondering what change happened that could motivate this.

(networked) computers happened.

Yes if your doing cutting edge R&D you relay on having very good shops - who can both build the experiment and come up with solutions and make sure you accidentally don't design a rig that will self destruct.

My first job was on campus at Cranfield Uni and we had our, own wood, mech and electroincs shops and thats not counting access to the universities labs and shops. shop

We had a machinist in the Physics department at my university who made incredible things. He made things that are out in space and tons of cool and very difficult hardware for laser systems and particle accelerators. He could make practically anything and was a great resource for us physics students to learn some practical things like how to use a milling machine, machinability of materials, tolerancing, and how to articulate our needs to a machinist. Sadly when he retired, I heard that they didn't replace him. I still feel like it was a huge loss for the department.

I think the glassblower here is the same. Such a shame that we don't have pipelines for more people to pursue things like this.

In the engineering faculty at my university there's actually a machine shop with people of various specialities. If you go there you can get things made as long as you have a CAD drawing for them to work from. They'll also point out issues in the drawing if they see them.

We also had a student machine shop where students could work and there was a technician on hand to give advice (and prevent you from doing something stupid).

Having machinists in an engineering school makes sense from an undergraduate education perspective; for certain types of engineering, designing something with CAD and having a machinist make a prototype is a core part of the work students are being trained to do.

I assume getting custom glass blown isn't a core requirement of the chemistry curriculum, or a very common thing for working chemists to be doing.

My dad was that person at Rice University. A high precision machinist that just had a high school education yet was involved with Nobel Prize winners in their daily work. Great memories hanging out in the research support shop at Rice. When he retired, they did replace him, but the new guy certainly doesn't compare. Scientists at Rice still call him up to consult from time to time.

I hope that some of this type of hands on expertise develops and is shared in places like this https://synshop.org/ (my friend Aakin who helps out there told me about it)

We do, just not at "college". Now you have to go out and find them because college in the US, like many other industries, is a place for the rich to get richer.

I wonder how many skills like this are getting harder and harder to find as people retire?

I'm reminded of an article I read about 20 years ago by James Boyk, who was Caltech's music lab director and pianist in residence, about the difficulty of finding piano technicians skilled enough to maintain pianos for concert level pianists after his long time piano technician moved away [1].

[1] http://www.its.caltech.edu/~boyk/essay.htm

Or the case of the optician Achim Leistner [1]. He had to be brought out of retirement for the kilogram replacement project, as no-one else could feel atomic scale irregularities. His employer is no longer looking for a replacement optician, as the lab in which he worked has been closed [2].

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Achim_Leistner

[2] http://www.smh.com.au/technology/sci-tech/a-thing-of-beauty-...

Within every realm of human sense, there are a small number of people who have a much higher degree of sensitivity than the average person. Average people can already detect 10 nanometer irregularities on hard surfaces, so it's not surprising that an expert can detect 1-5 nanometers. The physics, chemistry, and biology of the fingers and brain are consistent with this observation.

How this arises is intriguing- I'd guess (and only a guess) that it's a combination of inherent sensitivity and experience.

Fascinating. Is there an explanation for his 'atomic feeling'? Doesn't seem possible. And if it's more accurate than machine measurements, how do they determine that?

The best hypothesis that I've been able to piece together from various description of these types of "feelings" is that the individual exhibit very specialized forms of visual synesthesia.

yeah, experience, tons of it.

There are dozens of things in Japan dying off as traditional things become more difficult to make due to the demand not being what it once was.

Kimonos [0]

Swords [1]

Kaiseki [2]

Hand Tattooing [3]

Urushi [4]

0: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/japan/8082875...

1: https://www.tofugu.com/japan/korehira-watanabe/

2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rC7ddflgvvQ

3: http://articles.latimes.com/2012/jun/24/entertainment/la-ca-...

4: http://web.archive.org/web/20150812060006/http://enterjapan....

On the other hand the market for both traditional and western style Japanese knives is exploding.

And there is growing market for premium knives made from tamahagane and using traditional sword making techniques.

The case with Wilfried Fehrekampf and blaupließten - he was the last to know the traditional German grind (not the axes that Wusthof repurposes as knives lately) - but he found apprentices and the new Herder 1922 are terrific.

There will always be market for the traditional.

I know one guy recently went to japan to learn traditional swordmaking - some of his work is in Birmigham (UK) museum staggeringly beautiful and deadly.

Are new classes of craftsmanship/skill coming into existence as fast as the old ones are dying off?

I wouldn't be surprised if there are surgeons today that would look superhuman a few decades ago. I also suspect athletes are getting better, and everything about movie making except the stories.

I found the following video about Clifford Stoll (beyond The Cuckoo's Egg) fascinating.


I loved his book, but this video is great. His enthusiasm makes him really likeable. Having an under-the-house forklift robot is so damn cool!

Plenty, such works are hard work with limited openings, an apprentice might have to go through this for years with very low wages since they are getting free training and yet have no prospects for work until the master retires. What young person wants that or has the patience for that today? Trying to train someone last minute is with risks since such candidates might drop out. The ideal thing to do would be to hire multiple candidates, pay them really well and pick the best or two 2 at the very end.

Even that would be pretty horrible for the candidates given the lack of job prospects

Watch repair is another. Lots of freelance work available from jewelers because of it.

Same thing happened at the University of Washington which as a world class research institution has only a single glass shop in the Physics department. A cost cutting *sshle chair (theoretician) didn't like the expenditures on experimental physics and forced the glass blower into early retirement. Chemistry doesn't even have one.

This is a beautiful HD video of sealing a nixie tube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a_sKuQ8Fm8c

Borosilicate Glass working is like throwing clay + science, with added dimensions of heat and time.

"subtle science and exact art" - s. snape

It's a shame the apprenticeship culture isn't as prominent these days. Are we really fine with keeping the torch in the last generation?

It is very much alive in Germany, and this is regularly mentioned as a reason why the economy there is doing relatively well. [0]

From the German wikipedia, I see there's a school that educates glass blowers, and they have various areas of specialisation. [1]

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_in_Germany#Apprentic... [1] https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glasbläser

Even there it's definitely not as robust as it used to be, though it's not declining as quickly as elsewhere. I'm more familiar with the Danish system, which used to be somewhat modeled after the German one, but has rapidly changed over the past 20 years. The main problem is that, of two higher-education tracks that were previously both seen as a path to a stable, well-paying job, the vocational/training and the university tracks, pay and employment rates have diverged rapidly to the point where university is now clearly seen as the better path. Lots of reasons, ranging from automation to outsourcing to immigration. In the 1970s in Denmark a skilled machinist working at a shipyard made more than a typical office worker, and had high job security. But that is no longer the case. Every shipyard in Denmark has now closed, for one thing, which led to many of the people who used to have good jobs there struggling to find new work.

There are definitely still niches where the vocational path can get you a very high-paying job, but as a whole it's seen as a riskier bet than it used to be, so is getting less popular. There's also a feeling that even picking a vocational area that looks hot now is too risky, because in 10 years it might share the fate of the shipping industry. (A similar story can be told about the steel industry in the US, which was once seen as a very good career path, but now tends to serve as more of a object lesson for why not to follow the vocational-skills path.)

Most plumbers and electricians I know make a lot more money than the infinite number of "social media specialists" or "copywriters" I know. The problem isn't risk, it's perception of self-worth. Many millennial-types view the trades as beneth them (as they pour coffee at Starbucks waiting for some value to be realized from their worthless gender-studies degree.)

I don't think these millennial-types are any different in that regard than their Gen-X predecessors.

Except of course that adult Gen-X slackers, who are more likely to be a homeowner, have had a lot more time to learn what a good plumber or electrician is worth.

It's not like it's a choice, in almost every field in which one can do an apprenticeship, one has to do it to be allowed to work professionally. In combination with an age limit of 30 for most governmental support during apprenticeship this leads to a very static workforce in which people cannot easily change specialization later in life.

I also doubt that apprenticeships contribute much to an economy that is mostly driven by high-tech exports.

> It's a shame

A shame? Quite an understatement. Sadly short-termism is the message du jour. I don't have the first idea how skills that once took a ten year apprenticeship can be sensibly preserved, or why apprenticeships have so comprehensively died. "Modern apprenticeships", or whatever your region calls them, don't provide anything near the same depth.

As this article shows, even the places that actually need those rare skills cannot see far enough ahead to recruit a shadow apprentice.

It's not just the niche skills that get lost, it's the problem solving abilities that went with them.

Exactly this. The US educational obsession with "everyone should go to college" has led to both inflated college costs as wel as a perceived lower respect for the trades. Asking a "marketing specialist" to hang a simple sheet of drywall would be like asking a giraffe to make coffee.

That's not just in the US. The UK has the same issue.

I doubt that the "trades" ever had much respect - its just that those bright kids would have left school at 16 and done the vocational route all go to uni now.

Apprenticeships in the UK have to pick from those that are left and deal with the damage done by TV shows and super markets saying you can do an apprenticeship in shelf stacking - when in fact its just cheap labour.

One problem I've seen is the reduction in the variety of high school courses. If you don't spend the time doing work in shop, you might not know that you really enjoy it and make the decision to try and get an apprenticeship. It's not just shop, it's a variety of things.

I recently found out that Chicago doesn't offer any shop classes to most of its high school students anymore. I learned this from a former shop teacher who has been forced to switch into teaching computer courses like Microsoft Office. Students used to learn Office by doing, now they have to learn to live with not being able to do much of anything physical with their hands unless they go to vocational school when they're 18+.

When I was in grade 7 I moved to a new town and therefore a new school. They actually had a requirement that everybody take both home economics and shop class. It was actually a combined course, for the first half the year you did one and the second half the other. Which was good for me because while I could cook and do shop, I couldn't sew. I still use the spice rack I made back then.

I thought it was a pretty good idea since it meant that everybody would learn the basics of cooking, sewing, and woodworking.

My high schools I went to all had some sort of vocational courses and if you weren't doing the advanced courses (in preparation for university), you were kind of expected that you'd do some of them. I moved for my final year of high school and while I was disappointed I wouldn't get to do another year of programming, they did have a electronics course (I built a small radio). I later learned that a few years after I started university, they cancelled the electronics course.

Wandering through the halls at Caltech was always fun. There was all the clutter of lab equipment that spilled out into the halls, and gas cylinders stashed everywhere. Rooms filled with equipment of inscrutable purpose, and the well-equipped machine shops.

Quite a paradise for a nerd like me.

Notably the Salem community college program has produced a number of the big names in "scientific" glass pipe blowing(i.e. bong moguls).

I'd imagine the money is better making high end smoking apparatus than lab gear.

As far as I'm aware, artistic glass blowing is a different field from the scientific stuff, with different training and different schools. For those unfamiliar with what's out there, the work of this person is pretty famous and sought-after http://saltglass.com

Artistic glass blowing (lampworking) absolutely overlaps with scientific glass blowing. What you are thinking of is hot glass using a kiln.



The schooling is different but the techniques overlap. Sally Prasch at Syracuse University (http://praschglass.com/) is a master in both fields. My personal experience with the bong types, though, is that the great majority is undertrained.

Call me crazy, but something like universal basic income might make people more apt to "go for" skills and apprenticeships such as this.

Quote from OA

"This year, Salem Community College graduated 31 glassblowers — 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."

Perhaps a couple of apprenticeships while the experienced ones are still around? Wouldn't cost that much.

I'm liking this increase in interest in craft production and manual skills - the kind that are harder to taylorise.

Exactly, they make it seem like it somehow is society that changed to not have glassblowers anymore but the reality is that it was their simple business decision.

Hiring a rookie glassblower or two at maybe 50.000 a year for 5 years would have cost them perhaps half a million. And now instead of that they're going to have to 'steal' one from another university for god knows how much money and God knows for how long.

My undergrad university had the same issue, and the last glassblower retired 15 years ago founded a company and kept supplying the necessary equipments to the research cluster.[1]

The glassblowers there seemed to think that the repair of broken glass equipments is potentially hazardous to the glassblower, and one of the founders who handled more repair requests had two cancer surgeries. It's only an anecdote, but it could be a reason why it is difficult to find a successor of this 71 year-old person.

[1] https://translate.google.com/translate?u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.ha...

There is a curious effect that seems to bring together the most advanced science and technology with very old tech otherwise thought obsolete. The place where you are most likely to find floppy discs is probably a research lab, because a rare, very expensive instrument saves its data on them. Space probes use ancient CPUs like 386's as they can handle the radiation.

I suspect the effect at work is simply a lack of money. Those ancient technologies aren't better in any way, but developing new ones has an implicit cost that's hard to justify when the old technology still does the job, however poorly. It would be possible to use a radiation hardened CPU that's far better than a 386 but only if someone spends millions in research and testing first - no one is willing to do that when an existing variation of a 386 does the job already.

As feature sizes shrink it becomes much more difficult to create rad hardened integrated circuits. Modern DRAM just barely works at ground levels of background radiation, let alone what it would see in space.

Sounds like someone needs to do a _Foxfire_ [1] series around Chemistry and Physics departments.

[1] http://www.foxfire.org/thefoxfirebooks.aspx

"With nearly 9 million copies in print, The Foxfire Book and its eleven companion volumes stand memorial to the people and the vanishing culture of the Southern Appalachian Mountains, brought to life for readers through the words of those who were born, lived their lives, and passed away there—words collected by high school students who wanted to be a part of their community and preserve their heritage."

// edit: corrected link, added quote

I'm amazed that chemistry equipment is not made in some sort of factory that uses machines to spew out millions of containers?

How many other things do you think are actually made by hand, where you'd think they're made by machine?

As a researcher, sometimes you need glassware in very specific dimensions that is not available in commercial catalogs. For instance a few months ago I needed a glass pipe of a given diameter and a given angle in order to fit a machine which normally does not use glass pipes.

Such combination of diameter and bend angle was not available off-the-shelf, so a glassblower needed to make a custom piece for us.

The article says that he worked mostly on custom glass shapes with properties that were very difficult to factory produce, or had very low demand, not enough for a factory to bother with.

Sure, but you'd think there was some 3D printer sort of thing that could do this?

I've never seen it done with glass, just plastic and metal.

3d printed glass doesn't have nearly the optical clarity or strength properties of blown-annealed glass.

Now you have three problems, not only do you need an expert on glass technology in general, and an expert on the weird glass requirements specific to the obscure specific problem, but now the unicorn employee needs to be an expert on 3d printing technology. Which for a guy who mastered glass technology probably isn't going to be very hard to figure out, but still, making it even harder to find a guy isn't going to help.

Does this mean modern apprenticeship systems fail us? If there is such a strong demand for this very niche skill set, there's gotta be financial incentives to raise journeymen to the masters.

Some chemical companies still have scientific glassblowing departments.

Could you replace glass blowing with 3D printed ceramics with a glass doping?

IT would have better thermal resistance, integrity, and be able to still stand up to corrosive chemicals due to a glass doping.

The main issue is that it would not be transparent.

Considering the loss of old time glass factories in West Virginia and Ohio, some only have had shut down in the last decade, one or two are still about, plus the former glass blowers and artists are working independent there are ample people who could get up to speed and work glass for laboratories

The problem with laboratories is not only technique working the glass, but as the article points out, also generally knowing how the experiment might affect the glass (or vice versa). These can be very specific issues that the chemist might not think of.

That's a bong.

It takes ten years to train people of that skill. Not having access to a capable glassblower as a chemical researcher is an infrastructure problem that cannot be solved with any amount of money. You need a master glassblower to train the next generation, and you need capable apprentices, and it still takes ten years.

Neoliberals, note that fact.

Noted. Please explain how this interesting article warrants political mudslinging.

While snarky in tone, he has a point - The Market doesn't have a spectacular track record of having foresight longer than the next quarterly report.

He is absolutely right, scientific glass blowing does take about 10 years to be exceptional. And then the work is painstaking (low output) and the pay isn't that good. You can earn more money making bongs. A lot of old neon tube benders are ex-lab glass blowers, but that field is dying off too.

yup, last neon plant within 3 hours of me recently closed. they will be outsourcing it all to a vendor in seattle, with an additional wait time of at least two weeks per project.

I remember having this argument with an invisible-hand fanatic, who thought that the economics of supply and demand simply solved everything.

"So... a neurologist takes 13 years to train from scratch. How does the market manage that?"

Well, to be fair the market does manage quite well! Since it's so hard to become a neurologist, there's a shortage unless the pay is so good that people are willing to forgo 13 years of their life to get there.

Sure, if your definition of market includes government-funded universities. Of course, such a definition has a tendency to swallow everything in the world like some kind of intellectual black hole. This is why the idea of the invisible hand is commonly derided as a religion.

And the bodies of the people that did not get their treatment (or got the wrong one, because their neurologist was overworked, tired of burning the midnight oil) pile up.

Free market is good only when you have both elastic supply and demand.

If you ignore the massive subsidization by the federal government, then the market manages just dandy. Taxpayers spend north of $15B on graduate medical education annually.

Were there no neurosurgeons before those gov't subsidies were in place?

Government subsidy of the arts and sciences is a practice that dates back to the ancient world in the form of patronage [1]. If you wanted to be ridiculously pedantic, as some people on the internet are known to be, you could argue that the neurosurgical procedure known as trepanation [2] dates back to at least 7000 years ago. However, the modern science of neurosurgery is far more recent so I do not think it is at all unfair to claim that gov't subsidy predates neurosurgery by a wide margin.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patronage

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trepanning

Neurosurgery (as we know it today) first came about in the early 1900's.[1] CMS, the gov't institution that funds residencies, was created in the 1930's (well, it predecessor was).

And if we look outside of neurosurgery to general medical practice, we'll find that it was humming along quite nicely without any gov't support.


You just provided a link to UCSF, a government-funded public university [1], to prove your point that the government didn't fund the development of neurosurgery?

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_California#Histo...

Just because a government-funded institution creates a webpage describing the history of a subject, doesn't mean that government funded institution created that subject.

If I link to a NHTSA website on the history of cars, are you going to argue the government invented cars?

So your argument is that government didn't come up with the original idea for neurology and therefore, what, exactly?

What is your argument?

I think that, because at some point there was a doctor, therefore the free market will make doctors just fine. Ignoring that medicine is one of the least free markets in the US (and even less outside the US) as irrelevant. From education (college subsidies, loans), public financing of med schools, public financing of post med school education, etc. Not to mention who actually pays for all that medical treatment. Or just random free market magic argle bargle.

I don't disagree that the US healthcare system is the exact opposite of a free market. But I do disagree that it would be impossible for a functioning healthcare system to exist without the gov't.

I disagree. The free market is predicated on free individuals making free choices. If you contract a fatal, but curable disease there is no practical limit to the amount of money you'll pay for the cure. The fact that your very life depends on this treatment makes you a non-free person, rendering the free market dysfunctional.

13 years is a very slow lag time. For comparison, the general public has only been aware of the internet for about 20 years.

Better example is how does the free market build the Sydney Opera House? Or a decent healthcare system?

Dunno about the Opera House but the free market built Disneyland.

Disney receives some of the biggest tax breaks of any company on earth. They pay no tax at Disneyland Anaheim and get massive subsides for movies (Pirates of Caribbean and Starwars being recent examples). They get tax breaks internationally and are rivals to oil and arms in scale. Free market does not apply.

Disney also has special flight restrictions, which Congress, not the FAA, mandated. Nominally described as an anti-terrorist measure, I agree with the many who say it was to prevent aerial advertising and sightseeing helicopters.

In Florida they have their own special tax district, the Reedy Creek Improvement District. It is "exempt from all county and most state regulations, such as development-impact fees or costly and time-consuming regional-impact studies. The district is regulated by building codes drafted with the developer`s help. Waterways, utilities and sewer systems are built to suit the developer`s needs. The district is governed by a ruling body that is handpicked by the developer." http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/1987-02-23/business/8701120...

Low or no taxes would seem to be an important part of the definition of free market

Low or no taxes for everyone would be a free market. If only certain corps get it then it's like a subsidy from the rest of society.

You're forgetting the 12+ years of schooling.

Trivially. For starters, student loans, wherein lenders profit from interest on the loan.

Yours is an example of an interesting comment. Had he made an actual argument I wouldn't have called it out.

It's a shame that a single snarky line gets a comment flagged and hidden.

Here's the parent comment, in case you can't see it:


It takes ten years to train people of that skill. Not having access to a capable glassblower as a chemical researcher is an infrastructure problem that cannot be solved with any amount of money. You need a master glassblower to train the next generation, and you need capable apprentices, and it still takes ten years.

Neoliberals, note that fact.


I think there is a point here, but it could have been worded less incendiary.

If you always try to lower costs, outsource everything, buy the cheapest glass from some chinese factory, you will lose local expertise. If you outsource entry level positions now, you will lose experienced craftsmen in the future.

But with some foresight, a university (or any company) can easily avoid this, by hiring apprentices early; if you give a young person a chance, they will often be loyal and stay even if, after years of training, they could now get a better paying job somewhere else.

Doesn't even read as incendiary, just a slightly snippy turn of phrase. I doubt anyone sees neoliberalism as problem free. One of the problems being an excess of short-termism.

I think it's entirely appropriate. The exact same point is made just as well in other comments, so it really doesn't add anything, and the offhand comment at the end spawned a flame war.

The people down voting you are the same people who mock the Brexit leave voters.

If Neoliberals were in power, useless schools and education tracks wouldn't be so massively overfunded both with tax dollars and tax-funded loans, and thus people would actually have to learn a trade, something useful and something someone on the market requires, rather than, idk, gender studies. The idea that the free market creates useless people is ludicrous - given that the government is gobbling up everything that even resembles education and bastardizes it.

> "If Neoliberals were in power"

Neoliberals are in power.

I disagree. If you see the size of our governments and the amount of laws, it's absolutely mindboggling. Our laws have tens of thousands of pages and the volume of regulations and laws seem to be at an all-time high and growing. No substantial deregulation ever happened across the board in almost 100 years, possibly more. The volume of the regulation is so incredibly huge that even large and well funded companies are incapable of following them all, nor is it possible to enforce anything but an arbitrary selection. If you talk to industry leaders, CEOs and people in the business, you see that this is a real problem and a harmful practice everyone has to deal with every day.

Big regulation != Strong regulation. Seems like non-programmers don't understand this so well.

Why is this guy hard to replace? There are tons of college stoners who have the skills to blow you any glass you want. Visit your local head shop if you doubt this. Why not get one of those?

Funny how jobs we know nothing about are always easy or unnecessary.

It's not just general glassblowing skill; it's the intersection of that skill with knowledge of the sets of uses to which it will be put, and the techniques specific to creating forms that are not just bongs and statues.

I've seen some pretty intricate and complex bongs.

I agree, I know several glass blowers in that community and they work is at times very complex and functional (if you are into those kind of things).

Do they work in borosilicate or in softer glasses? Can their products take a vacuum? Multiple atmospheres? Cryogenic liquids? Have they done glass/tungsten connections? Threads? Can they silver glass? What experience do they have with a glassblowing lathe? Milling using diamond tooling? CNC waterjet cutter?

Ask the blowers in that community if they could make the pieces shown at http://www.ilpi.com/glassblowing/glassblowing.html .

There's a reason it takes years to master scientific glassblowing.

I've done a lot of programming, but I'm the wrong person to talk to if you want an operating system or mobile app.

Glassblowers who make high end pieces for people to smoke marijuana out of work pretty exclusively in quartz and borosilicate, and will certainly have experience with lathes. See for instance http://waterworksglass.com/?cat=13 https://mothershipglass.com/collections/

That said, they would clearly have to do a lot of learning and training for the more specific scientific applications, and since many artists get thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars per piece, I'm sure you'd have a hard time luring them away. On top of that, they probably couldn't be stoned all day and would go from making art to making whatever functional objects are needed.

Well, that shows I know more about scientific glass than recreational and medical.

Still, lightlyused referred to "several glass blowers in that community" who lightlyused personally knew. My comment was in response to that. I seriously doubt that those are the ones who make high end pieces.

Bong making is not hard. It's one of the things that chemistry undergrads often do if they take a glass blowing class and the staff lets them get away with it. (Sometimes the lab teacher will even anneal your 'project'.)

I can be good enough at carpentry to make bookshelves for me and my friends. That doesn't mean I can build a good staircase.

Similarly, it would be hard to lure me away to, say, a job developing cloud computing infrastructure.

there are a lot of good glass blowers in the weed industry. I just don't think they would leave their current job. :)

Are we at the point of being able to 3D print glassware yet?

I don't know if printed would have the same strength as hand blown, but they could maybe fill in some of the gap with printed pieces.

Is it technologically feasible to "3D print" (or "3D blow") scientific glassware?

I know it's possible to use computers to design the glassware apparatus that take into account the material constraints of glass, but is there a difficulty gap in translating that into an actual machined product?

I'm curious why this is being downvoted. Did I miss something fundamental in the original article that speaks to why this works or doesn't work?

The intent of my question wasn't to blindly try to techsmith a solution, but rather, to understand what a traditional practitioner brings to the table vs. what can be provided via an automated process.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact