Some cutting-edging science today relies on the centuries-old art of glassblowing.
When researchers in chemistry, physics and medicine need special glass tools for complex experiments, they sometimes sit down with a glassblower to sketch out designs for customized beakers, flasks and condenser coils.
New Jersey's Salem Community College is trying to keep that tradition going with the country's only degree program in scientific glassblowing. Housed among corn and soybean fields about an hour south of Philadelphia, the school's Glass Education Center in Alloway, N.J., specializes in one of the most popular materials in a research lab.
"It's clear. You can see what the experiments are doing. It holds no chemical history. And it can be shaped into any form you like," explains Dennis Briening, the instructional chair of the college's two-year scientific glass technology program. "Whatever your imagination is, it can be made."
His students learn how to make tools for research universities and glass manufacturers at workbenches across a row of glowing furnaces. As they blow into glass tubes, they hover over bright orange flames that reach as high as 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. That's hot enough for those stiff tubes to bend like rubbery taffy and twist into candy-cane shapes or snake coils that look machine-made.
This is a craft with exacting requirements from scientists. Any mistakes in the glass could cause accidents and ruin an experiment.
"I always say a millimeter to a glassblower is a mile," says Briening, who has had to create glassware while holding a tolerance of one-thousandth of an inch. That's thinner than human hair, which is about two- to three-thousandth of an inch.
Besides patience with blueprints, the school's glassblowing students have to learn the basics of organic chemistry and computer drafting so, as Briening explains, they have a fuller understanding of how their glassware can be used. Over the past four years, the program has more than doubled its enrollment to now more than 100 students.
They're carrying on a tradition of scientific glassblowing that took off in the U.S. after imports of glassware from Germany was stemmed by World War I. Many students today are drawn to the program after catching what some call the "glass bug."
"Glass as a material is so captivating. It starts as a solid. You put it in fire. Everybody loves fire. And then it melts, and it's a liquid," explains Katie Severance, who graduated with an associate degree from the program and now teaches scientific glassblowing at the school. "It's like a beautiful dance, working with the material, getting to know it."
Neil Messinger started the program after studying glassblowing as a studio art and marketing student at The Ohio State University.
"It's fulfilling to me in the sense that I'm using my two hands to create something. I just love tangible objects, being able to say and hold something, like, 'I made this,' " says Messinger, after he gently pushes air into a glass bottle with a blow hose while gripping a blow torch in his right hand.
In between scientific glassblowing classes, he's already working for a company that makes glass parts used for gas chromatography. But he says he eventually he wants to make glass tools for labs working on cancer research.
"My mother, she had a bout with breast cancer. And I just don't want people to have to go through that," he says. "I feel like in this day and age, cancer is something that shouldn't be heard of."
One day, he hopes, cancer patients won't have to sit through radiation. After he graduates in the spring, he says maybe his scientific glassblowing can play some small part in making that day come sooner.