Friday, January 20, 2012
For Science: Fountain Pens
I've decide that I would launch a series on this here blog, which I am titling "For Science", drawing on a popular meme (and I am very fond of Portal myself). In this series of indeterminate duration and frequency, I'm going to write about things that I think are useful for scientific use, and beyond.
This time, the subject matter is fountain pens. Yes, fountain pens. That probably seems like a rather odd topic, so allow me to give a brief diversionary explanation. On Christmas, I was somewhat unexpectedly gifted with a vintage Parker 51 fountain pen (it's a very dark green, basically this pen). It's a lovely bit of work, and considered the greatest fountain pen of all time by many. It is also not a cheap thing, and wasn't even when new.
And having a fountain pen, for the first time in my life, got me to thinking about how we write, and what we write with. I have long held up the plastic water bottle as the ironic symbol of modern civilization. It is made out of a material that lasts essentially forever, is filled with something we can get for almost free, and is intended to be used only once. And then thrown away. The standard ballpoint pen is remarkably similar. Intended to be cheap, convenient and inconsequential to lose, and yet made of immortal materials.
I began to wonder how many hundreds of pens I had bought or borrowed, and then lost or thrown away over the course of my life. Estimates put the number of pens thrown away by Americans per year north of 1 billion. That's pretty terrible. I had recently attempted to only buy pens I could get refills for, but found that the refills were often hard to come by, and that the pens themselves were often no great shakes. The idea of having a few well crafted and durable pens that I might use from here until I no longer need to write had never really occurred to me. Until I was given this Parker.
However, I had no ink for this pen, and I am particular (or peculiar) in that I like the pens I use to have an ink color that matches their exterior.
So I began to research inks. And, given the nature of my field of work, I decided I wanted something permanent, water resistant, etc. And that proved a bit difficult, at first. But it turns out there are a lot of options, some of which are quite old indeed. There are new pigment based inks, variants of iron gall inks, and more modern cellulose reactive inks. Fountain pens are very sensitive tools, and use capillary action to move the ink to the paper. This means that the inks used with them must be very fluid, and have very hard limits on the size of the particulates they can contain. For this reason, it has taken time to develop permanent pigment based inks, but they do exist (though only in a few colors). The same is true of iron gall inks, which also have the disadvantage of being acidic, which is not good for paper in the long term. I eventually settled on a line of inks developed by a fellow named Nathan; Noodler's Ink. Most of the inks he produces are also waterproof or water resistant (as they bind to the cellulose in paper), have a neutral pH, and are also resistant to various and sundry solvents. He has even developed a refillable marker for dry-erase boards.
Most of these features are intended to deter forgery, which may not seem like a big deal in the sciences. However, for those in environmental science, particularly those who deal with wetlands, endangered species, or other issues that frequently end up in court, field notes may end up as legal documents. And in this case a permanent, forgery resistant document is very important. I was also taught that a proper laboratory notebook should be written in ink, and anything that needed to be corrected should be crossed out in a way that left it readable. Having an ink that resist various bench chemicals and common solvents is very desirable in a lab environment, obviously. And even if you work at the poles, in the coldest of environments, there are inks that will resist freezing.
Of course, one might also want to avoid picking up an expensive writing instruments with be-gloved hands, covered in lord knows only what substances. But it turns out there are extremely affordable fountain pens! I'm talking less than five dollars affordable. There are also refillable highlighters, and highlighting ink! Many pens use cartidges, which I feel defeats the point of a fountain pen, but convertors are available for using bottled ink, or you can make them into eyedropper pens, which I have done with the inexpensive pens I've acquired.
The other great advantage of a fountain pen is that it requires no pressure at all to write with; you need only touch the nib to paper, and the ink will flow. I am looking forward to avoiding hand cramps in the future, when I am called to write lengthy essays, or take notes for an extended period by hand.
You may also noted that I have consistently linked to the Goulet Pen Company. There are a small, young (literally Mom & Pop) company with excellent customer service, a great selection of products, and a lovely and thoughtful website. They pack their shipments extremely thoroughly and carefully, perhaps even a little overly so (mine involved several feet of deep blue plastic wrap, but the risk of ink bottles bursting from cold made this a reasonable measure). I highly recommend them. Even their logo is very nice!
So, I suggest you use a fountain pen... for science!