Glassblowing is Like Coding

Both are best left to specialists

Yes, I’m sending this out via Substack, for what I hope is the last time…keep reading. But in the meantime, yes, you can still subscribe!

Can I tell you a story about my undergraduate days?

West Lafayette, Indiana, sits on the very western edge of the Central Time Zone (correction 04:35 EDT: Eastern Time Zone!), which means that the sun comes up very, very late in the winter. Meanwhile, the university doesn’t really have the space to accommodate its 30,000 undergraduates, which means it schedules student labs at unreasonable hours. Some of my strongest memories of being an undergraduate chemistry major at Purdue involve trekking across a pitch-black campus at 7:30 a.m. to get to organic chemistry lab.

I broke so much glassware. And let me tell you: Glassware for organic chemistry is expensive. I distinctly remember being charged at least $50 (in 1995 dollars) for some sort of double-necked, round-bottomed flask. I cursed the darkness.

Wetherill Laboratory of Chemistry, Purdue University, 2018. Photo by the author.

As an undergraduate, you worked with commercial glass, ordered from a catalog. But both then and now, Purdue’s chemistry department hosts a Scientific Glass Blowing Laboratory. Researchers can order custom glassware, and graduate students can learn how to fashion (or repair) specialty glass instruments. As Jordan Smith, the university’s scientific glassblower, told a campus news service in 2019, “We do our best to design the labware apparatus around the experiment or lab, so the researchers don’t have to design their projects around an apparatus. Creative labware requests are encouraged.”

As recently as the 1950s, professional chemists were expected to have at least rudimentary glass repair skills. A generation before that, it wasn’t uncommon for chemists to blow their own flasks. This was part tradition and part resourcefulness, but it was also a way to for chemists to demonstrate their lingering allegiance to the messy, sweaty spaces of the shop, even as they took on the refined airs of the lab.

Such skills are rare today. In chemistry, the ready availability of mass-produced, borosilicate glassware eliminated the need for chemists to design and build their own labware. (Want to know more? I loved the background in this piece!) Except in certain corners of engineering and computer science, scientific researchers are no longer expected to know how to blow their own glass or weld their own joints or wire their own instruments. They trust these tasks to professionals so they can concentrate on doing the research they love (or the paperwork they hate).

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Saturday afternoon, I poured myself a cup of tea and sat down to begin what I thought would be an easy migration of this newsletter to Buttondown. Everyone says Buttondown is “simple,” and that’s true, if you’re happy leaving well enough alone. It turns out I do not like leaving well enough alone. Next thing you know, I had 35 tabs open to help me fake my way through my rudimentary understanding of CSS. I was tinkering with embedded code and frustrated that I couldn’t figure out the difference between a “button” and a “button wrapper.” I had no idea what I was doing, yet briefly convinced myself that it was important that I try.

But you know what? It’s not! Buttondown is a great, low-cost service for people who can either live with a very stripped-down newsletter or are comfortable working in basic web design. Neither of these phrases is a particularly accurate description of me.

I’m writing a newsletter because I want to spend more time writing, not designing email templates. Ergo, I need a platform that does the design thinking for me. The good news is that I think I’ve found a solution that better fits my needs! The bad news is that these things take time, and I’d like to get it right before rolling it out. Hopefully next week?  

One thing I’ve learned is that a system that meets my needs will likely come with associated costs. In the spirit of paying for things that have value, this change means I’ll be introducing premium features to accompany the free version of newsletter once the changeover is complete. So, loyal readers, this is your chance to tell me what you’d like! Just click on the emoji to indicate how motivating you’d find the following:

1) Opportunities to suggest topics for future newsletters


2) AMA-style live chats


3) Monthly Zoom office hours


4) Private community space (e.g., a Slack or Discord)


5) Book club


Won’t we have fun??