Robert Laudise '52 has been experimenting with the chemistry of materials for more than half a century. The only difference between his work now and the experiments he conducted as a 12-yearold in Amsterdam, N.Y., is that now he works to contribute to the betterment of society-instead of trying to blow it up.
“They weren't particularly dangerous explosives,” Laudise says today of the stink bombs he made and sold to his friends back in junior high school. Fortunately for Laudise, no one ever discovered that he was the mind behind the bombs.
“I had a very loyal group of friends,” Laudise says today from his office at AT&T's Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, NJ., where he is the adjunct chemical director and a laboratory consultant. “I may have been naive, but I guess in a way I was trying to be a good manager even back then.”
For more than thirty years, Laudise has managed a group of research scientists at Bell. The theme of his work has always been to learn how to prepare materials used in modern electronics.
In the 1960s, he did pioneering research on converting single crystals of quartz into larger crystals that could be used in telephone circuits and later in watches. The research also led to the development of a factory producing synthetic quartz. Later, he studied the robust sapphire that was used in the first Telstar communications satellites
and for covering solar energy cells, as well as helping to prepare ruby and garnet materials for use with some of the early lasers.
“In the early sixties, crystal growth was a black art,” Laudise says. “We were really doing a lot of our research by the seat of our pants, trying to rationalize just how the crystals grow.”
Later, in a book called The Growth of Crystals, Laudise outlined methods for crystal growth ranging from pressures as high as 25,000 pounds per square
inch to temperatures as hot as 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The book, he says, “tried to make some order out of chaos.”
As technology advanced, Laudise and the research groups he managed worked to develop the materials that would be used for the first fiber optical communication, in which thousands of signals are simultaneously transmitted over highly-transparent glass fibers that can be as thin as a strand of hair.
“I've been lucky to work for an organization that has a five to twenty-year outlook on its research,” Laudise says. “Some of the things we first worked on when I came here are just being put into use now. For me, science has always been driven by how it can be applied and used.”
Laudise gives credit to Union specifically, Professor of Chemistry Charles Hurd-for the broad-based education that let him succeed in the lab and as the manager of a team of people working towards one common goal. Hurd hired Laudise as a student to help him with research to find new uses for cement, and he encouraged Laudise to pursue the science of materials in graduate school.
Laudise says the personal growth he achieved in his fraternity, Kappa Sigma, and by living with students who had many varied interests has been just as important to his success. “That kind of learning really comes through osmosis at Union, and I don't think I would have received it at a technical school where the focus is more narrow,” he says.
Laudise went on to earn his doctorate in inorganic chemistry at M.I.T. From there he went to AT&T, where Stanley Morgan, a famous scientist of his day and fellow Union alumnus, was one of his bosses.
During the past decade, Laudise's interests in the environment has given him a new challenge-trying to make scientific research and production more environmentally-benign by using what he calls “green materials and green processes.” His environmental work began when he saw that the regulatory burden that the government placed on corporations would eventually bankrupt high-tech businesses if they didn't change their methods.
“There had to be a better way to have sustainable development and competitiveness without butchering the environment or having strangulation by regulation,” he explains.
By attempting to design non-polluting materials, Laudise is trying to keep AT&T ahead of the regulatory wave. “We don't want to always be responding and cleaning up,” he says. “The great challenge of the twenty-first century is going to be to develop a corporate environmental ethic. We have to realize our ethical responsibilities and sustain the development of the economic pie. We can't continue to tell the third world to stay in poverty while we live comfortably. The pie has to grow.”
Laudise's work has landed him on several federal government and university advisory committees. He is also the president of the Federation of Materials Society, through which he helps develop a policy for combining public and private materials research. In addition, he happens to be one of a small group of scientists who is a member of both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.
To make sure that his scientific pursuits continue to be applicable to everyday life, Laudise and his wife, Joyce, a biologist and naturalist, recently wrote a paper published in an environmental science journal on the ecology and acidity of the lake near their summer home in the Poconos.
Things certainly have changed since the age of stink bombs.