Scientific glassblower Jorg Meyer has contributed to chemistry discoveries for more than four decades

The sign on the door at 123 Rowland Hall says simply, “Glass Shop,” but what goes on inside the dusty, cluttered domain of Jorg Meyer is anything but simple.

Meyer, a UC Irvine employee since 1965, is a scientific glassblower. Officially called a development engineer, he works with glass and fire to design and create glass systems that scientists use to study everything from the human body to the stratosphere.

Name a scientific breakthrough at UCI and Meyer’s condensers, vacuum tubes, distillers, canisters, etc. probably have played a role. His most rewarding work?

“I’d have to say with Mario Molina and Sherry Rowland and their work on the ozone hole,” says the tall, lean glassblower. “In those days, they collected a lot of air samples in glass vacuum lines. Now, they’re using more stainless steel.” Rowland and Molina won a Nobel Prize in 1995 for demonstrating how chlorofluorocarbons destroyed ozone.

As the third generation in his family to do this kind of work, Meyer has seen a lot of changes in scientific research and, in turn, the work he is asked to do. He bemoans the fact that students don’t know how to heat and bend a simple glass tube anymore. He thinks computer simulations rob them of practical, common sense.

“It’s like changing the oil in your car,” he says. “You can simulate it on a computer, but it’s not until you’re lying under the car and the oil spurts out on your face that you really know what you’re doing. I’m waiting for this computer fad to pass.”

Meanwhile, his workshop is littered with e-mail printouts containing requests for custom glass pieces. One drawing shows an S-shaped design. “If I had to send this out to be made,” he says, “with all the purchase orders and back-and-forth, it would cost $75. I can turn it around for ten bucks.”

The tools of his trade lie scattered across large workbenches in his shop — assorted wrenches, screwdrivers, clamps and a splintered wooden mallet hide among boxes of glass pieces Meyer has saved for repair jobs. One tabletop torch accommodates small projects while four huge, glass lathes and two ovens are reserved for large-scale productions.

A visit to Barbara Finlayson-Pitts’ AirUCI lab on the fourth floor of Rowland Hall provides a glimpse of Meyer’s impact. Just inside the locked door is an elaborate glass contraption used to study chemical reactions at the air-water interface and how they affect the atmosphere. Toward the back is a large, glass, 100-liter tube in which scientists simulate ozone hole formation.

“Everything in here that’s glass is Jorg,” says chemistry postdoc Jonathan Raff. “And what’s really exceptional about Jorg is that he’s part of the process. He has to know the chemistry in order to do all this.”

In Andrew Borovik’s chemistry lab, solvents such as dimethyl sulfide, dimethyl acetemide and pentane are drying. “You can’t have any water in some scientific experiments,” Meyer explains. “It’s like having water in your gasoline. It just doesn’t work right.” The stainless steel tubes and canisters that make up the drying system also are Meyer’s work. Perfecting it allowed UCI researchers to replace glass stills, which had a disturbing propensity to blow up and catch fire.

“We’ve probably saved lives with this system,” Meyer says.

Only a few universities (just three in the University of California system) have their own Jorg Meyer, and that makes the 67-year-old shake his head with dismay. His own daughter is uninterested in carrying on the family tradition.

“I don’t understand it,” he says. “With this kind of knowledge, you can name your price and work anywhere you want. But everyone wants to make their living on these things,” he says, with a disdainful gesture toward the desktop computer. “I just don’t get it.”