Dance of the Stockholm Toolmaker

Pratt Whitney Universal ComparatorThe “Universal Comparator,” from 1887 publication by Pratt & Whitney Company: “Standards of length and their practical application” ., from: Harvard Library, digitized by Google Open Books.

About the best thing I ever learned about science is that science does not exist without instruments.

For the purposes of this article, “instruments” are special tools: precise, reliable, and accurate tools, sufficient and custom made to the needs of scientific pursuits. Those who design and fabricate scientific instruments used in research, industry, and metrology are known as toolmakers. Toolmaking should be a distinguished profession. It requires as much creativity and brainwork as any academic discipline.

Yet toolmakers are often considered beneath academia, in the basement of the Ivory Tower, although they built the tower. I’ve heard too many stories (how commonplace, I’m not sure) of scientists who’ve minted their careers by exploiting the ingenuity and outputs of staff toolmakers, and downplay their necessity to scientific publications and prizes the scientists reap. Machinists, metrologists, glassblowers, rarely receive credit which is theirs: toolmakers solve problems scientists cannot, or will not.

True toolmakers are highly specialized, and uncommon. There may be fewer than a dozen toolmakers or small shops in each global region who specialize in the making of precision sine bars, for example. Sine bars are a machine tool used to measure or align work and tooling to angles, especially right angles. Regular sine bars abound. Precision sine bars are carried around like Fabergé Eggs in a cleanroom. With grade double zero or mythical “Grade K” gauge blocks, the finest sine bars, made from ultrapure atomic iron or advanced toolsteel, paired in temperature controlled facilities, can easily reach uncertainty tolerances of one millionth of a radian. The going rate for launching your own satellite is around $8K. Paired 00 gauge blocks and a wide-angle sine-bar start in the mid five-figures.

Do scientists sometimes make their own special tools? All the time. Do toolmakers design and make instruments at the request of scientists, instead of the other way around? You bet. But it is difficult to believe those responsible for building these instruments – be they scientists or enlightened machinists - have anything less than mastery of the principles and questions which engender need for a new device or system. How could they not?

(I’ll grant that toolmakers in general probably don’t have the Standard Model memorized, as their laurelled bosses do.)

I’ve tossed and turned trying to pinpoint the spot on a gradient with “scientific toolmaker” on one side, and “scientist” on the other. When I think about master toolmakers at work beside prominent scientists on the same project, I see only one person.

Many who win Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry, and medicine are identical to toolmakers. Last year, both Nobels in physics and chemistry were awarded to builders of scientific instruments: the LIGO detector, which recorded a gravitational wave, and a new type of electron microscope.

The chances of any “toolmaker” winning something other than employee of the month or a trade credential are remote as Europa.

Many questions arise if we momentarily allow master toolmakers and hailed scientists to be one and the same1.

Consider scientists Alan Lloyd Hodgkin and Andrew Fielding Huxley. Beginning in the 1930s, they conducted experiments with squid in search of a repeatable method to measure the rise and fall of a voltage across a neuron, or “action potential.” Squid are model organisms for this pursuit because of the diameters of their nerves, some as wide as one millimeter. One millimeter was smaller in the 30s than today, and the instrument did not exist to pierce it, so they built their own: a very fine platinum wire inside a sliver of drawn glass, inserted like a needle into the axon beside a bare silver electrode (details excluded). When the nerve was actuated, a measurable voltage and electrical current appeared in and across the probes. With the probe wires connected to an analog ammeter, they watched the current momentarily but lacked means to record the impulse.

They “recorded” the behavior by pressing photographic film to the screen of an oscilloscope, which amplified the electrical signal from the probe and projected the signal as a luminescent dot on a groundglass screen.

Hodgkin Huxley Oscilloscope Plate Action PotentialImage of action potential recorded on photographic film pressed to an oscilloscope. (Whether this is the original Hodgkin-Huxley plate is unknown)

A mere record of knowledge is not enough to qualify as scientific knowledge. Hodgkin and Huxley needed to describe and provide discussion of these behaviors formally, using mathematics, and came up with four differential equations solving for the unknowns of each electrochemical path or circuit of the nerve, and added each proof together. Once the proofs were checked, then it is right to say they “discovered” the total current and behavior of electrical phenomena within neurons.

For this, Hodgkin and Huxley shared the 1963 Nobel Prize in Medicine. Their insights drawn from the measurements observed from the tools they made, slightly modified, remain unchallenged and essential to all electrophysiology, most medicine, and some divisions of neuroscience as the “Hodgkin–Huxley model.”

And here maybe you’ll say “the math was the hard part!”

It was a righteous triumph at the chalkboard indeed.

But why did they need math at all? To serve one and only one objective: to draw a reliable scale on and explain the behavior of a recording made from their tool.

Restated: the photograph from the oscilloscope was the recording of a luminescent dot moving across a photosensitive plane of material over time. The image that appeared in the photographic developer tray and subsequent prints is iconic - to most this image is a heartbeat, which is not at all like looking at a real heart beat - and was as true then as it is now, but Hodgkin & Huxley’s problem was not that the oscilloscope presented a distorted representation of an action potential which required adjustment. Their problem was dimensioning the borders of the image to ensure the measurement measured the right thing, and verifying the causal mechanisms of the phenomena. Here, the image verified their hypothesis of electrical current movement and molecular alignment of charged sodium ions against a membrane, or so-called ion channels2.

The answer showed itself before they understood the question. The first recording of an action potential was a near perfect analogous visual symbol of the phenomenon, like photographic proof of a long rumored ghost. Ghosts are ghosts, but without numbered dimensions, without numbers, team H&H would be laughed off the podium as failed squid-pokers, just like ghost-hunters are.

To play the science game to its conclusion, they conjured an imaginary mental model to calibrate and peel the ectoplasmic shape off the scope, into the domain of measurable things. Hodgkin & Huxley were toolmakers long before they were proven scientists, and math was only needed to prove and improve the utility of their instrument’s ability to measure and record the right kind of data.

Math exists in our minds and nowhere else, but our minds cannot form the concept of numbers without things in the real world to count and rearrange, like electrons in a squid tentacle, or marbles in a jar. When things are very small, or invisible, or far away, or in need of counting when continuous, toolmakers arise and build bridges between our inner world and the outer “natural” world. They use all available tools, concepts, algorithms, and math to accomplish this feat, and frequently build instruments to build instruments if prexisting ones aren’t right. Then vanish soon after, with little to show for their contributions but a maker’s mark.

Scientist’s used to be called “natural philosophers.” Baruch Spinoza - well known for his precision of language today - spent more time and was associated more with his dayjob as a professional lensgrinder, while living, than he did or was as a philosopher: a difference from contemporary history’s lens, which sees Spinoza as a philosopher.

As legendary philosophers go, Spinoza carried a difficult life. As a Jewish 17th century Dutchman, his participation in formal discourse with contemporary philosophers was limited from what it might have been, although he did receive recognition in his lifetime. As a philosopher, his arguments of logical doubt on the nature and existence of God expelled him from the Jewish community. Spinoza spent most of his adult life alone as a professional grinder and polisher of lens elements for astronomy and microscopy. He gained a reputation for this work, at first, rarely without injurious asides, until many owners began minting careers with his lenses.

Spinoza scholars are at odds whether lensgrinding was bread or passion for the man. He never mentions optics in any of his published works, so Spinoza’s opinions on the roles and reasons of toolmaking are unknown or guessed at. This is odd, as his routine correspondences are littered with fierce insights into optics with the most prominent scientists of his time, and few philosophers were equipped with experience in toolmaking - now and then - while the history and philosophy of science is by necessity a discourse over the innovations, consequences, and duality of immaterial imagination and physical instrumentation.

Spinoza’s philosophy is important stuff. The lens business which supported that pursuit of philosophy produced lenses so damn fine, scientists of the day sought them out like hogs to the truffle. They allowed observations no other lenses could resolve. Astronomer Christiaan Huygens discovered Saturn’s rings because of Spinoza’s lenses. Anatomists too numerous to name clambered for his microscope eyepieces, and saw things with them they could not see before.

Spinoza, poor fellow, ground such a good lens, it actually killed him. Long hours over the optician’s bench inhaling glass dust did him in early from some fatal silicosis. There are bookshelves filled with speculations on what Baruch Spinoza might have thought, had he lived.

If lensgrinding is toolmaking, and Spinoza spent his days grinding lenses, maybe Spinoza should be recorded as a toolmaker first, and preeminent philosopher, second. Both titles are as impressive, to me.

  1. After writing this article, while listening to my favorite science podcast, Omega Tau, Episode 285, I became aware of a distinction held by some between applied theoretical “phenomenological science,” and theoretical physical science. Phenomenological science as I understood from the brief interchange between Marcus and his guest, Pierre Bauer: superconductivity engineer, is the use of mathematics to describe or predict phenomena for which no effort is expended to explain or contribute to physical models of the phenomena. You might not have to do anything other than whiteboard. If you have the treasury to interrogate this mindzap: go nuts…63..239S. How phenomenological science is distinct from “physical science,” (especially, say, astronomy - where instruments abound yet applied research remains at a considerable disadvantage of proximity), I don’t know. The distinction may be, as Pierre says of self-authorizing himself to summarize theories of resistance in a superconducting material, “above my paygrade.” Against the lowly such as we, Pierre and I, the distinction between phenomenological science and robust models of physical behavior validated by experiments, somebody might extract an argument with powers of dismemberment over my own. Oh well. No one clicks on these footnotes. Though I wonder what Heidegger would say of “phenomenological” science, in his hut. Heidegger aside, subjectivism attracts me to its explanations and categorization of unknowns, and positions subjectivity as the only possible perspective. It follows: all knowledge is phenomenal knowledge. Pierre Duhem’s The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory (no relation to superconductivity engineer Pierre Bauer) also supports with enhanced topical specificity that physical science is derived from phenomenal experience, and gives a name to our fruitful, uneventful, doomed investigation: “The Veil,” which we may see beyond once in a while, but cannot remove. It’s a tricky hair to split with precision - whether physical science is phenomenological science. Like asking whether physical properties responsible for sensations of color are real. Even Maxwell - who discovered the physics of color - affronts the search for a link between color and things as a pointless, insoluble enigma, beyond argument. In 2013, Ben Schneiderman thinks across the pages of The Atlantic that the linear model of academic research, where basic research comes before applied research and never otherwise, therefore thought superior, is regressive hogwash. He proposes restructuring scientific research and industry into an “ecological” model, where basic and applied researchers work alongside one another on projects both in and outside of laboratories. Why not abolish the academic caste system which awards theoretical/basic researchers the highest pedestal with the most funding and a medal from a poised but dispassionate queen, duke, or duchess: a pedestal built atop a notion that all technology, inventions, experiments, and human activity which use technology follow and are subservient to fundamental research, stubbornly held as the only true frontier of human discovery of an external world, and of that world, basic researchers the only admitted explorers. Instead, his ecological model acknowledges not only those who build the research ship, but also the questions raised and questions answered by shipwrights equally eligible for laurels. No, not a participation badge. Garlands of shapely green vine, because the toolmaker’s efforts are as central to the process and outcomes of science. To really break it down subjectively, Schneiderman - utopian maniac? - suggests workers should be allowed to claim manifest on vessels they made for their Lords. A necessary change like this will obviously meet resistance. Schneiderman assures it worthwhile to step over this resistance, and pass through the stranglehold on the current of progress amidst unintended consequences, with compelling reasons for this ecology, like that it is a better mode to “cope with contemporary problems such as energy sustainability, healthcare delivery, and environmental protection, which requires technology breakthroughs and behavior change among billions of people. The ecological model breaks traditional academic disciplinary boundaries and requires new collaborations, but they can have high payoffs for all.” 

  2. For a better explanation visit 

Written by Alex Milne