January 19, 2007
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Hot Glass

Hot glass looks like cold glass. This is one of the things they drilled into us in school, over those long afternoons of lab exercise.

I say it to myself all the time in the kitchen. I have little red sleeves that go over skillet handles as soon as the skillets come out of the oven. I have six or seven oven mitts floating around the place. I recite the words: hot glass looks like cold glass.

It didn't keep me from grabbing a skillet of (rather good) russian banana fingerling potatoes, halved, browned in a little oil, and then baked in dark stock and lime juice with a little shallot and lots of fresh thyme.

My picture of lab chemistry was doubly warped. First, I spent a summer in a hospital lab during high school, so I had the routine manipulations down cold before we ever got to them in school. It's like cooking: if you want to learn to use a pipette, do fifty serum creatinine a day for a week or two. You can get a start by watching the professor's demo and working through a three hour lab, but a week or two of production builds reflexes and gives you a chance to see things go wrong.

The other distortion, of course, is that the lab chemistry they taught us in school was a bad compromise between the last decade's needs and the current era's practices, further compromised because it's hard to provide decent instrumentation for thirty high school kids or forty college students, most of whom thought themselves to be ticking off the course in route to medical school.

By the time I started, the age of blowing your own chemical glassware were over. At least I never had to learn to use a beam balance — those lovely precision instruments you still see in museums and display cases, all oak, glass, and brass. Still, they taught us the rudiments, and that all-important lesson: hot glass looks like cold glass.