Material mystery: Inside the art and science of glass

man hold item up standing in front of table of trinkets
Emily Wiley

Carlo Pantano shares examples of artistic and scientific glasses.

Although glass can be transparent, its definition is anything but clear.

"Glass is complicated," said Carlo Pantano as he spoke before a standing-room only crowd at last Wednesday's Research Unplugged event. "It's difficult to define. Like your spouse—you know who they are, but try to define them."

Glass is the amorphous substance that has brought you mirrors, windows, and thermometers; the non-crystalline material found in telescopes, vases, jewelry, and cardiac operating knives; as well as toothpaste and LifeSavers candy (yes, it's true!). Forget cotton. According to Pantano, director of Penn State's Materials Research Institute, glass is the "fabric" of our lives.

"Normally when you talk about glass, people want to know if you're going to talk about artistic glass or scientific glass. My message today is that they're not very different," Pantano said. "And Penn State's glass research program is an attempt to bring the art and science closer together." The program, created by Pantano in 1995, is arguably the first of its type in the country.

For the first 15 years of his career, Pantano studied the "geeky" scientific and engineering aspects of glass, he said. Then he became interested in the art of glassblowing, for which he created a studio at the University Park campus. "There are many things we enjoy today that art has given to science and vise-versa," Pantano said, holding a scientific viscometer (an instrument that measures a liquid's viscosity) made by technical glass blowers in State College. He then held up a Venetian glass paperweight from Murano, Italy, where he said the art of studio glass blowing originated.

Pantano shared a story about 16th century astronomer Galileo Galilei asking glass blowers in Murano to make him a better piece of glass for his telescope, in order to study the stars more closely. Pantano also described how natural volcanic glass, called obsidian, is used by archaeologists to date the migration patterns of early humans. And today, Space Shuttle tiles are made entirely of glass.

audience crowds around table and discusses
Emily Rowlands

Several members of the lunchtime crowd continue their discussion after the event.

"There's been a Stone age, there's been a Bronze age, there's been an Iron age, but there's never been a Glass age," Pantano told the crowd, which filled the theater lobby. "That's because glass keeps on giving. I don't think it's finished yet."

Pantano fielded questions from curious audience members about everything from glass's role in ceramic art to its use in nuclear waste storage before one listener asked, "What's left to do?"

"My interest right now is in looking at biological applications," Pantano said as he described glass's potential for creating artificial bones and glass capillaries to probe living cells. For Pantano, the enduring mystery of glass is in the future solutions it will provide.

Carlo Pantano, Ph.D., is distinguished professor of materials science and engineering and director of the Materials Research Institute at Penn State. He can be reached at pantano@matse.psu.edu. Katie Feeney is an undergraduate communications student and intern for Research Unplugged. She can be reached at kaf254@psu.edu.

Last Updated March 22, 2006