Celebrating the Science of Stuff


Bell Labs materials engineer David Bishop joins ENG

David Bishop is enamored of glass (There is no other thing that we have made better than glass), concrete (the material we make the most out of on the planet), steel, silicon, and a host of other materials. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

When David Bishop looks out the window of his sixth-floor office in the BU Photonics Center, he sees the same city skyline that his neighbors do: the graceful towers of the College of Arts & Sciences, the silver ribbon of the Charles River, and the buildings of Cambridge beyond. But Bishop, the new head of the College of Engineering’s division of materials science and engineering, notices much more, starting with his window pane. Bishop doesn’t see just glass, but something unique. “It’s the one material that has been more improved than any other,” he says. “There is no other thing that we have made better than glass. Glass has been made cleaner by 100 orders of magnitude—100 orders of magnitude means if you can jump a foot, you can now jump to Alpha Centauri.”

And when Bishop, an ENG professor of electrical and computer engineering and a CAS professor of physics, gazes at the walls and towers of CAS, he marvels at another creation. “Concrete,” he says, “is the material we make the most out of on the planet. You couldn’t build a city without it. The fact that you can take water and sand and lime and end up with concrete is amazing. You don’t fire it. It would really be a drag if in order to build a city you had to take every little piece and put it in an oven before you could put it together. The world would be unrecognizable without concrete.”

And don’t get him started on the steel inside the concrete—“You can drill it, you can weld it, you can fabricate it”—or on copper or silicon.

It’s easy to perceive Bishop, who spent 33 years at Alcatel-Lucent’s Bell Labs, as a man who is obsessed with every atom of the world that is not part of his body, but in fact, that would be selling him short. Because Bishop believes that the future of materials science will include the atoms in his body, and yours.

“What we are looking at now is bio-inspired materials,” he says. “That is the amazing ways that biology creates material. If I were to give you a quarter-inch-thick piece of concrete, you could break it with your hand. It’s not that hard. But if I were to give you a clamshell, you couldn’t break it. A clamshell is also made at room temperature. So what’s different about a clamshell that makes it so strong and so light?”

While evolutionary biologists look at the history of the world in terms of animal behavior, and military historians view it in battles lost and won, Bishop sees it in terms of materials.

“If you look at the last 10,000 years,” he says, “the history of progress has really been about materials. There was the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, there was glass, there was silver. If you think about it, you realize that figuring out how to smelt gold to make coins lets you not have to rely on a barter economy. And when you don’t have a barter economy, you can have a specialization of labor, which leads to more progress.”

And from Bishop’s perspective, the marriage of technological progress and advances in materials is as vital today as it ever was. “If you look at the computer revolution, it’s all about silicon,” he says. “Because of silicon we have learned to build circuits that control things at the atomic level. That just about gives us the ability to make everything better. That’s what materials science is about. It’s really the science of stuff.”

That Bishop, who has a joint appointment in the CAS physics department, now brings his vast knowledge of stuff to BU, is seen as major coup by Jean Morrison, University provost and chief academic officer.

“David is the kind of transformational faculty member who will lead the growth and development of materials science,” says Morrison. “In broader terms, he will be able to transform not only the depth and breadth of the work we can do, but the stature of the program. He is an extraordinarily successful and important researcher, and we are thrilled to have been able to attract him to BU.”

Bishop’s unusual combination of depth and breadth is what makes him a rarity in the scientific academy. In his 33 years at Alcatel-Lucent (originally AT&T Bell Laboratories), he worked with low-temperature physics, all-optical switching, superconductivity and superfluidity, nanotechnology, and energy-efficient networking, to name a few of many fields.

Among Bishop’s titles at the lab were vice president of optical, nanotechnology, and physical sciences research and president of government research and security solutions. In those capacities, he pushed the boundaries of telecommunications, networking, and cybersecurity solutions. In 2009, he was awarded the George E. Pake Prize from the American Physical Society for “his effective leadership of AT&T/Lucent/Bell Labs research during an especially turbulent time in the telecommunications industry, and for his seminal contributions to low-temperature physics research.”

Kenneth Lutchen, ENG dean, says Bishop is the perfect guide for cross-college interdisciplinary graduate and research programs that embrace physics, chemistry, and every field of engineering.

“David Bishop brings a wealth of senior scientific leadership and visibility and an extraordinary record of successful program building,” says Lutchen. “His career spans the intersection of the fundamental materials science principles that govern how materials behave at the molecular through macro levels, to the innovative design of new materials for applications in every field Boston University is strong in. He adds instant national stature to the direction and quality of our program, and he amplifies our ability to attract top faculty talent and multi-investigator grant funding to BU.”

Bishop, who earned a PhD in physics from Cornell University in 1978, says he is honored to join the world of academia, whose privileges, in his opinion, come with some serious obligations. “As the world grew its economies, we did it in a pretty dirty way,” he says. “We made a mess out of everything. If you think about the Third World as it marches up, they have a right to live the way we live. But if they did it the same way we did it, with the same carbon footprint, it would be unsustainable. We don’t have a lifestyle that is scalable to the rest of the human race, so we need to figure out how to allow economic progress in ways that are less destructive than the way we used.”

Consequently, he says, First World institutions with the resources to explore solutions have a duty to do what they can. “A university like BU has a responsibility to wrestle with the largest and most important issues facing the human race,” he says. “This is the kind of institution that has a leadership role in the world. That means understanding the big issues and having an impact on solving the big problems. How are we going to create enough clean energy? How are we going to find enough clean water for the world? We have an obligation to make sure that the ideas we generate really make a difference. This isn’t a place that should be a follower. This is a place that should lead.”

Art Jahnke