“The hellest job,” Mike Souza says, was making 20 super-thin cigar-shaped nuclear target cells in his glassblowing shop in the basement of Princeton’s Hoyt Laboratory. Princeton physics professor Michael Romalis wanted the ends of the cells, inverted like the bases of champagne bottles, to be made 120 microns thick—the thickness of a human hair—with a margin of error of only 10 microns. The aluminosilicate glass was so thin that Mike had to measure it by x-ray. To make matters worse, Dr. Romalis’ experiment had a design paradox: it required the thin glass to withstand internal pressures of up to 300 pounds per square inch. “Success” meant that only half the cells Mike made exploded in testing. Dr. Romalis then used the Stanford Linear Accelerator to shoot a beam of highly accelerated electrons at the nuclear target cells in order to study the properties of quarks.

Mike Souza is the official Princeton University Glassblower. I did not know that universities employed glassblowers until I found Mike on Google. He’s a hefty man with a mess of gray hair ringing his balding dome. He wears shades all day indoors—that is, cobalt lenses, so that he can stare into the fire. His hands are meaty, calloused, and precise as a musician’s. He describes glass-blown kitsch as “Elvis on velvet.” He keeps one earphone in while he works—jazz, classical, Hendrix, Van Morrison, Dylan, the Allman Brothers. He professes to love good musicianship and good food.

Mike is the last man standing in Hoyt Laboratory; all the chemists moved to a new building down-campus. He unlocks the door for me and leads me past barren labs, abandoned tanks of nitrogen, doors flapping open. As we enter his shop, he says, “I’m not exactly anal retentive.” Once I pull my mesmerized gaze from the two-foot long tongue of flame curling out of the “lamp” on his workbench, I notice the workbench. It, and every other surface, is buried under a three-inch layer of glass tubing. He reaches into the snarl and pulls out a long coil of glass. “See how elastic it is?” Mike wiggles the coil like a Slinky. He reaches in for another tube, a skinny one of pure quartz. It occurs to me that he must win at every game of Pick-up Sticks. Mike rests one end of the tube in his left palm while he rolls it between thumb and forefinger. The other end he rolls between the thumb and middle finger of the right hand. He holds the tube lightly but firmly, several inches away from his body. He takes a broad stance at the bench, the most efficient posture from which to reach quickly into the fire. Now he centers the tube directly in the blue jet of flame. He stretches the quartz glass like taffy. All the while, his fingers never cease rolling.

“How hot is that?” I point to the amorphous orange glass in the fire.

He smiles under his chevron moustache and responds, “No pain, no gain.” When I look horrified, he explains that glass actually does not conduct heat, he explains. Just don’t touch the part that’s molten.

He whisks it out of the fire as he speaks. It hardens immediately. He scores it with an Exacto knife, then deftly snaps the tube in two. “Pulling a point,” he says in his slow, gravelly voice. Now he puts the center of the tube back in the fire. The glass, being quartz, glares white all along its length. He invites me to place my finger over the gleaming tip, and I hold it there until my skin begins to burn. But I thought glass doesn’t conduct? He smiles with a scientist’s wonderment and explains—the photons are so concentrated in the narrow quartz tube that they generate heat. “Wow,” I whisper, staring at my finger.

Historian Alan Macfarlane posits that glass lies at the root of the technological and scientific revolutions of the West. Windows enabled longer workdays. Spectacles gave old people decades more productivity. Test tubes and vacuums led to Boyle’ Law, led to steam engines, motors, cars. Telescopes discovered black holes; microscopes found the smallpox viruses. Mirrors and greenhouses. Chronometers and sextants. Light bulbs, radios, televisions, computers, and touch-screen iPhones. Humankind’s great triumphs—including wine—could not exist without glass.

Mike started as a kid in his father’s Evanston, Illinois glass-grinding shop at night. Inscribing decals, washing tubes, and loading furnaces were forms of punishment meted out to Mike and his four brothers. They were forbidden to play with the big machines; his father had lost all his fingers grinding on a big stainless steel taper spinning a thousand miles per hour. In high school, Mike spent a summer working in the shop, tried glassblowing for the first time, and decided to stay with it. After two years practicing the ancient Roman skill with his father, he apprenticed in following years at half a dozen other workshops before landing a position as a scientific glassblower at Northwestern University. He disliked being paid after finishing each commissioned piece; here at Princeton University, he is paid for his effort. That means he has time to experiment, to shatter and start over. In his two decades working here, he has gained a deep understanding of physics and chemistry, and how they inform his glassblowing. He works directly with students and faculty. “There isn’t that barrier that I am just a mechanic. We sort of educate each other.” Mike never attended college, but for thirty years he has been privately tutored by the best minds in science.

“You have to play the glass almost like an instrument,” he says, spinning a small bulb in the fire. It has the viscosity of hot honey on a spoon. He adjusts the lamp to increase the temperature of the fire, lets the glass flare pale pink, blue, then red-hot. He breathes quietly into a rubber tube draped around his neck, as though piping into a flute. The rubber is attached to the end of the glass blow-tube. He expands the glass, then holds it out to me. The sphere looks thinner than a soap bubble, and when he taps it with a carbon rod, the glass wafts and sprinkles into a garbage can like snow. When I try blowing a sphere, it grows into a bulbous worm. I don’t possess Mike’s fluid ease—I fail to keep the tube rolling simultaneously in both hands, and create an accidental twist in the glass. Even pulling a point, a basic technique, is a rub-your-stomach-pat-your-head exercise. The intimidating spike of fire issuing from the blowtorch does not help.

“Fire is our big adjustable wrench,” he says. “It’s the most important tool a glassblower has.” Different gas mixtures can make the glass opaque. If the temperature is too high, the metal elements in his creations may go up in smoke. Cooling glass in a furnace could take days in order to let the outside cool at the same rate as the center. “Knowing the right fires for the glass is a thing you always keep learning,” he says.

He clears the clutter from his desk and unrolls a blueprint for a series of vacuum tubes that make up a condenser jacket, a distillation setup requested some months ago by a Chemistry graduate student. The drawing appears deceptively simple until I realize that I have no idea how a tube is vacuum-sealed within a tube. He mimes in the air the process of fusing a tube to an open bulb, then cutting away the bulb and melting it to another, wider tube. “It’s built like a Tinker Toy,” he explains. He is more coherent and patient than many professors. The tubes must line up parallel, must not torque or strain. This particular project was so massive that he had to bring his lathe and torch down the hill to create the glass maze in the new laboratory.

Mike’s glasswork has played a part in some of the most groundbreaking innovations to come out of Princeton’s Chemistry and Physics departments in the last two decades. Scientists come to him with theories, designs, and intentions, and he helps figure out how to make exactly what they want. He spent weeks blowing a little inch-and-a-half-diameter perfect sphere embedded with atomic gyroscopes sensitive enough to measure the field and direction of the universe. He made the first OVPD, organic vapor phase deposition. It deposit OLEDs—organic light emitting diodes—onto a flat flexible screen one millimeter thick with a millions-to-one contrast ratio and 70% more energy efficiency than most displays. The OVPD process can also be used to lay down a fine layer of organic transistors on plastic to form a screen that rolls up like a scroll. The atomic magnetometer cells he created for Dr. Romalis are being adapted to make atomic clocks the size of pins and MRI machines that can image the brain and detect explosives. Some of these collaborative designs are now being patented and manufactured.

Mike says he never tires of the medium. If you put him in an art museum, he will beeline to the glass. It is strong, inflatable, versatile. “In the arts,” he explains, “there’s what you call Ham and Egg Commitment. You know, when you want to have a good breakfast, the egg has an interest. But the ham is really committed. Artistic glassblowing is the ham.” He loves the work of Sally Prasch, a scientific glassblower at Syracuse University who constructs human figures within bottles and fashions lamps that drip with glass tears. Josh Simpson, in Western Massachusetts, makes glass “planets” that layer color and precious metals to form clouds, corals, and shimmering archipelagos. I own one of his planets. It fits in the palm of my hand. I keep it on my desk because it reminds me of the ocean where I live.

Mike’s cupboard is bare of his own art. “I don’t like doing it because I can never please myself. I can make the swan, the rose, the ships”—that’s how he began, blowing figurines to impress his girlfriends’ mothers—“but where’s the satisfaction?” He never makes artistic gifts now, except on the occasion of a colleague’s retirement. Scientific glassblowing has totally captivated him. Now he views glass as a problem to be solved. His focus has changed from composition to ingenuity. And real art, he says, must have both composition and ingenuity. He figures that to do it right you’ve got to devote your life to one or the other, art or science. “I guess I’m just naturally inquisitive.”

Hermetic in Hoyt Laboratory, Mike answers the phone with gusto: “Hey man, what’s up?” or “Souza here” or “Glass shop.” He complains that the move to the new Frick Chemistry building robbed him of his customers, who now have to telephone ahead to be let into Hoyt to see him. He invites me back to blow a vase sometime. I protest that I will botch it, but he promises to help me on the lathe.

I ask about the secret skill in glassblowing, if one exists. “Imagine if your greatest authors had no erasers and wrote on paper that would shred apart if they wrote the wrong words,” Mike says. “Or imagine if van Gogh had to make his beautiful portraits with paints, but he didn’t know what the color would look like until it cooled twenty-four hours or a month later. It isn’t just knowing what the glass is doing. It is knowing what the glass will do.”