chemistry

Science and Craft: The Nature of Expertise

The third in our series on this year’s group projects by Science Communication students is a series of glass artworks by Victoria Druce, Josh Howgego and Katherine Powell.

This exhibition of three glass artworks explores the nature of expertise. The first piece reflects on how scientists generally view glassware as little more than a tool. The second piece encourages the viewer to reflect on the unique skills glassblowers posses and the value of this craft knowledge. The third piece examines how glassblowing can ‘serve’ both art and science separately, while remaining distinct from both. Overall, our pieces question whether the discipline of science suffers if it views supporting expertise like glassblowing as unimportant and external, rather than an integrated part of the scientific machinery. 

Glassblowing

Glassblowing

Stephen Ramsey, Imperial College's glassblower, kindly gave us a lesson in the craft.

Stephen Ramsey, Imperial College’s glassblower, kindly gave us a lesson in the craft.

Hidden away on the seventh floor of Imperial’s Chemistry department, looking out over the Queen’s Tower, is Stephen Ramsey’s glassblowing workshop. It’s cramped and much of the floor space is taken up by machinery; lathes, torches, ovens. The view out of the window is obscured by abstract glass sculptures: solid cones of finely ground down glass; a glass chain made by forming links whilst the glass is molten; and a hollow glass horse, frozen mid-gallop, which was blown by Ramsey during his apprenticeship. The beauty of the pieces provides a minute insight into the immense skill that goes into glassblowing. But Ramsey isn’t an artist, he is a scientific glass blower. He mends a bevy of broken glassware required to keep the chemistry department running as well as helping to produce more bespoke pieces of glass for use in scientific laboratories.

It was the role of craft in science, specifically glass blowing, that inspired our group project. In the 20th century science has assumed an authoritative role in society, and has come to be viewed as a superior source of knowledge to other disciplines. The objects used by scientists in their laboratories become incorporated into, and are representative of, the myth of science; connoting the objectivity and authority of the scientific discipline which obscures their connection to their origins in craft and renders their makers invisible. Though glassware is ubiquitous in chemistry the expertise of scientific glassblowers remains largely unacknowledged by scientists. We aimed in our group project to investigate this conundrum through the creation of three glass artworks that we hoped might provoke our viewers to reconnect scientific glassware to its origins in craft and to acknowledge the importance of craftwork like glassblowing to science.

The objects we displayed were found, made and given to us or by us using our investigation. The first collect objects were objects found in the chemistry laboratory. The objects are complex and delicate and displayed as artwork perhaps we can appreciate their aesthetic value but in the setting of the laboratory in contrast they seem almost invisible to those who work with them. French sociologist, Latour, described a network of ‘actors’ from which scientific knowledge emerges. For Latour it wasn’t simply scientists who featured in the network but objects, from the telephone and photocopier to the equipment in the lab such as the glassware. Latour thought scientists were largely unaware of the objects in their networks: ‘objects are nowhere said but everywhere felt’, living on the ‘margins of the social, doing most of the work but never allowed to be represented as such’. Latour’s theories have their critics, but the importance of glass apparatus to science is irrefutable, as is the importance of glassblowers to the creation and maintenance of these objects. Latour’s work suggests the need to re-evaluate the position we grant to laboratory objects and their makers, which is made more apparent in the way that skills like Ramsey’s, which are indispensible to science, are often overlooked by the scientific establishment.

Object 1: Found Objects

Exhibit 1: Found Objects

Our second object was a serious of glass bulbs, hand blown by us. Blown glass bulbs are the starting point for many pieces of scientific glassware. As the first thing that glassblowers learn to make, it seemed a natural place to begin practicing the craft. Our bulbs are imperfect; their irregularities and varying size suggest our inexperience and the difficulty of working with glass. In contrast the bulbs Ramsey blows are perfectly spherical, the glass distributed evenly about the pocket of air. Ramsey’s 40 years of experience has honed his expertise. He produces flawless glass pieces, which renders his craftsmanship easy to ignore. Our second series of objects was intended to encourage a discussion about the interweaving of craft and science. IN the practice of glassblowing, in a lab which resembled that of a chemistry department and in the training of glass blowing apprentices and the parallels with the training of young scientists we found something elusory that seemed to connect the two disciplines and revealed some craft character in science.

Object 2: Handblown Glass Bulbs

Object 2: Handblown Glass Bulbs

The final object we presented was a sculpture crafted by Ramsey. The precise form of a conical flask contains a delicate glass hand holding a wand. For Ramsey, the intricate hand emerging from this piece of lab glassware reflects the role of glassblowing in science. Stephen’s work exemplified the interaction we were investigating, demonstrating how significant he feels his contribution as a glassblower is to the scientific process. But Ramsey’s interpretation is one of several possible readings of the piece. For us, the transparency of the glass hand connotes the invisibility of the glassblower in science and his unrecognized status. The rod in the glassblowers hand appears almost wand-like and might represent chemists’ lack of appreciation for the origins of glassware; to them it seems to appear almost ‘by magic’. The delicacy of the hand and wand in comparison to the sturdy conical beaker perhaps connotes the delicacy of their relationship. Whilst science, connoted by the flask, occupies a powerful position, glassblowing, connoted by the hand, is more fragile and thus vulnerable. We wanted to use this piece to question to question the power dynamic between glass blowing and science. Ramsey makes significant contributions to some research at Imperial College London. Scientists he had worked with in the Chemistry department said the presence of a glass blower ‘improves the scientific output of an institution’ and allows scientists to ‘explore different avenues’ and ‘do more intricate things’. This makes the declining numbers of scientific glassblowers an alarming trend that chemists should take more seriously.

Exhibit 3: Hand in Flask with Rod

Exhibit 3: Hand in Flask with Rod

Together our three exhibition pieces raise questions about the identities of both glassware and the maker of such objects. To what extent are these ideas separable from science and to what extent are they part of it? In provoking these questions we hope to reveal a more rounded, realistic view of the position of craft in relation to science. Surely the two types of expertise are mutually dependent. Science’s failure to support this more holistic view of craft it may be to its detriment.

Victoria Druce, Josh Howgego and Katherine Powell are all currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London. Victoria and Katherine are both editors for Refractive Index.

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