Alan Lightman

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Alan Lightman
Born (1948-11-28) November 28, 1948 (age 69)
Memphis, Tennessee, U.S.
Nationality American
Alma mater Princeton University (A.B.)
California Institute of Technology (Ph.D.)
Scientific career
Fields Physics
Creative writing
Institutions Professor of the Practice of the Humanities, MIT
Director of Harpswell Foundation

Alan Paige Lightman is an American physicist, writer, and social entrepreneur. He has served on the faculties of Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and is currently professor of the practice of the humanities at MIT. He is widely known as the author of the international bestseller Einstein's Dreams. Einstein's Dreams has been adapted into dozens of independent theatrical productions and is one of the most widely used "common books" on college campuses. Lightman's novel The Diagnosis was a finalist for the National Book Award. Lightman was the first professor at MIT to receive a joint appointment in the sciences and the humanities. He is the recipient of five honorary degrees. He is also the founder of the Harpswell Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to advance a new generation of women leaders in Southeast Asia.


Lightman was born in Memphis, Tennessee. His father was Richard Lightman, a movie theater owner, and his mother, Jeanne Garretson, a dancing teacher and volunteer Braille typist. He is one of four brothers, including Big Star bass guitarist John Lightman.[1]

From an early age, he was interested in both science and the arts and, while in high school, began independent science projects and writing poetry. His combination of talents in both science and creative writing drew attention as he won city and statewide science fairs as well as the statewide competition for the National Council of Teachers of English award. He graduated from White Station High School in Memphis. Lightman received his AB degree in physics from Princeton University in 1970, magna cum laude, where he was Phi Beta Kappa. He earned his PhD in theoretical physics from the California Institute of Technology in 1974, where he had received a National Science Foundation pre-doctoral fellowship. His thesis advisor was relativist Kip Thorne, who won the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics. From 1974 to 1976, Lightman was a postdoctoral fellow in astrophysics at Cornell University. During this period, he began publishing poetry in small literary magazines. He was an Assistant Professor of astronomy at Harvard University from 1976 to 1979 and from 1979 to 1989 a research scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. In 1989, Lightman was appointed professor of science and writing and senior lecturer in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He was the first professor at MIT to receive a joint appointment in science and the humanities. In 1995, he was appointed John Burchard Professor of Humanities at MIT, a position that he resigned in 2002 to allow himself more time for writing. He currently teaches at Massachusetts Institute of Technology as Professor of the Practice of the Humanities. In the late 1990s, Lightman chaired a committee at MIT that established a new Communication Requirement requiring each undergraduate to have a writing and speaking course each of his or her four years at MIT. In 2002, Lightman and playwright Alan Brody launched a monthly salon of scientists and theater artists from the greater Boston area to discuss questions of mutual interest to scientists and artists. The salon ran for ten years, out of which was created the Catalyst Collaborative at MIT, a partnership between MIT and the Central Square Theater in Cambridge. The Collaborative has created and sponsored a number of new plays that embrace the culture of science. Lightman serves as one of its directors. In 2003, Lightman founded the nonprofit Harpswell Foundation, whose mission is to help advance a new generation of women leaders in Southeast Asia. Since then, Lightman has been chair of the board of that organization.

In 2015, Lightman was named to the International Council of Advisors of the Asian University for Women. He is also on the Board of Advisors of Primary Source, a nonprofit that works to raise global awareness in high school student in Massachusetts, and he is on the Editorial Board of Undark, an online magazine about science and society.

Scientific work[edit]

In his scientific work, Lightman has made fundamental contributions to the theory of astrophysical processes under extreme temperatures and densities. In particular, his research has focused on relativistic gravitation theory, the structure and behavior of accretion disks, stellar dynamics, radiative processes, and relativistic plasmas. Some of his significant achievements are his discovery, with Douglas Eardley, of a structural instability in orbiting disks of matter, called accretion disks, that form around massive condensed objects such as black holes, with wide application in astronomy;[2] his proof, with David L. Lee, that all gravitation theories obeying the Weak Equivalence Principle (the experimentally verified fact that all objects fall with the same acceleration in a gravitational field) must be metric theories of gravity, that is, must describe gravity as a geometrical warping of time and space;[3] his discovery, independently of Roland Svensson of Sweden, of the negative heat behavior of optically thin, hot thermal plasmas dominated by electron-positron pairs, that is, the result that adding energy to thin hot gases causes their temperature to decrease rather than increase;[4] and his work on unusual radiation processes, such as unsaturated inverse Compton scattering, in thermal media, also with wide application in astrophysics.[5] His research articles have appeared in Physical Review, The Astrophysical Journal, Reviews of Modern Physics, Nature, and other journals. In 1990 he chaired the science panel of the National Academy of Sciences Astronomy and Astrophysics Survey Committee. He is a past chair of the High Energy Division of the American Astronomical Society.

Literary work[edit]

In 1981, Lightman began publishing essays about science, the human side of science, and the "mind of science", beginning with Smithsonian and moving to Science 82, The New Yorker, and other magazines. Since that time, Lightman's essays, short fiction, and reviews have also appeared in The American Scholar, The Atlantic Monthly, Boston Review, Dædalus, Discover, Exploratorium, Granta, Harper's Magazine, Harvard Magazine, Inc Technology, Nature, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, "Salon", Science 86, The Sciences, Story, Technology Review, and World Monitor.

Lightman's novel Einstein's Dreams was an international bestseller and has been translated into thirty languages. More than one hundred independent theatrical, dance, video, and musical productions have been based on Einstein's Dreams around the world. The book was runner up for the 1994 PEN New England / Boston Globe Winship Award. Einstein's Dreams was also the March 1998 selection for National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation" Book Club. The novel has been used in numerous colleges and universities, in many cases for university-wide adoptions in "common-book" programs, and is one of the mostly widely used texts in American colleges today. Lightman's novel The Diagnosis was a finalist for the 2000 National Book Award in fiction and has been adopted by high school teachers of Advanced Placement English. In 2007 Lightman released his novel, Ghost, an examination of the dichotomies of the physical world and the spiritual world, scepticism and faith, the natural and the supernatural, and science and religion. His novel Mr g, published in 2012, is the story of creation as told by God. Mr g has recently been adapted for the stage by Wesley Savick. In 2009, Lightman published his first volume of poetry, a book-length narrative in verse titled "Song of Two Worlds." Lightman's essays on science have frequently appeared in anthologies of the best science writing of the year, and his essay "The Accidental Universe," was chosen by the New York Times as one of the best essays of the year for 2011. His book by the same name was chosen by Brainpickings as one of the ten best books of 2014. His book Screening Room, a slightly fictionalized memoir, was chosen by the Washington Post as one of the best books of the year.

Other major projects[edit]

In 2003, Lightman founded the Harpswell Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to advance a new generation of women leaders in Southeast Asia. Harpswell is funded from the donations of private individuals, foundations, and corporations. The foundation operates two dormitory and leadership centers in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, for outstanding female university students. In addition to providing free housing, food, and medical care, the facility gives these young women a rigorous in-house program in leadership skills and critical thinking (which they take in the evenings and weekends when they are not attending their regular university classes). The in-house program includes English instruction, computer literacy, debate, analytical writing, comparative genocide studies, civic engagement, leadership training, and discussion and analysis of national and international events. After our first two years of operation, our students were first in their class at most of the major universities in Cambodia. As of Fall 2017, the Cambodian program has about 140 graduates and about 76 current students. In 2017, Harpswell launched a new program in leadership for young professional women from all ten countries of Southeast Asia: Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, and Brunei. The program consists of an intense, two week summer program in Penang Malaysia, with lectures and workshops in critical thinking, civic engagement, Southeast Asian geography and society, technology and communication, and gender issues. The program has a total of 25 participants each year and will develop a strong alumnae association. For further information, please see the website of the Harpswell Foundation.

Awards and honors[edit]

  • Harvard Humanist Hub, inaugural winner of the Humanism in Literature Award, 2017
  • St. Botolph's Club of Boston, 2016 Distinguished Artist of the Year
  • New York Times Sydney Award for the best essays of 2016, awarded for "What Happened Before the Big Bang?" Harper's Magazine, January 2016
  • Screening Room named by the Washington Post as one of the best books of 2015
  • New York Times Sydney Award for the best essays of 2011, awarded for "The Accidental Universe," Harper's Magazine, December 2011
  • Finalist for 2000 National Book Award in fiction for The Diagnosis
  • Finalist for the 2005 Massachusetts Book Award for A Sense of the Mysterious
  • Association of American Publishers' Award for best science book of 1990 for Origins
  • Literary Light of the Boston Public Library
  • Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Bowdoin College in 2005
  • Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the Memphis College of Arts in 2006
  • Honorary Doctorate of Humanities from the University of Maryland, Baltimore Country in 2006
  • Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from the University of Massachusetts, Lowell in 2010
  • Honorary Doctorate in Humanities from Colgate University in 2017
  • Birthday Salutes by Garrison Keillor on NPR, beginning in 2012
  • Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • 1996 Andrew Gemant Award of the American Institute of Physics for linking science and the humanities
  • Distinguished Alumni Award of the California Institute of Technology in 2003
  • Distinguished Arts and Humanities Medal for Literature of the Germantown Arts Alliance of Tennessee in 2003
  • 2006 John P. McGovern Science and Society Award by Sigma Xi
  • Gold Medal for humanitarian service to Cambodia, awarded by the government of Cambodia

Partial bibliography[edit]

Short fiction[edit]


  • Problem book in Relativity and Gravitation / Alan P. Lightman, W. H. Press, R. H. Price and S. A. Teukolsky. – Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, (1975). – ISBN 0-691-08160-3
  • Radiative Processes in Astrophysics / George B. Rybicki, Alan P. Lightman. – New York : Wiley, (1979). – (A Wiley-Interscience publication). Rev edition (2004): ISBN 0-471-82759-2
  • Revealing the Universe : Prediction and Proof in Astronomy / edited by James Cornell and Alan P. Lightman. – Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1982 ISBN 0-262-03080-2
  • Time Travel and Papa Joe's Pipe / Alan P. Lightman ; with ten illustrations by Laszlo Kubinyi. – New York : Scribner, 1984. – ISBN 0-684-18112-6
  • A Modern Day Yankee in a Connecticut Court : and Other Essays on Science. – New York : Viking Press, 1986. – ISBN 0-670-81239-0
  • Origins : the Lives and Worlds of Modern Cosmologists / Alan Lightman and Roberta Brawer. – Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1990. – ISBN 0-674-64470-0
  • Ancient Light : Our Changing View of the Universe. – Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1991. – ISBN 0-674-03362-0
  • Great Ideas in Physics. – New York : McGraw-Hill, 1992. – ISBN 0-07-037935-1
  • Time for the Stars : Astronomy in the 1990s. – New York, Viking Press, 1992. – ISBN 0-670-83976-0
  • Einstein's Dreams. – New York : Pantheon Books, 1993. – ISBN 0-679-41646-3
  • Good Benito. – New York : Pantheon Books, 1994. – ISBN 0-679-43614-6
  • Dance for Two : Selected Essays. – New York : Pantheon Books, 1996. – ISBN 0-679-75877-1
  • Great Ideas in Physics, 2nd ed. – New York : McGraw-Hill, 1997. – ISBN 0-07-038048-1
  • Great Ideas in Physics : the Conservation of Energy, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the Theory of Relativity, and Quantum Mechanics. – 3rd ed. – New York : McGraw-Hill, 2000. – ISBN 0-07-135738-6
  • The Diagnosis. – New York : Pantheon Books, 2000. – ISBN 0-375-72550-4
  • The World is Too Much with Me : Finding Private Space in the Wired World. – Toronto : Hart House, University of Toronto, 2002. – (The Hart House lecture ; 2). – ISBN 0-9694382-2-2
  • Reunion. – New York : Pantheon Books, 2003. – ISBN 0-375-42167-X
  • Living With the Genie : Essays on Technology and the Quest for Human Mastery / edited by Alan Lightman, Daniel Sarewitz, Christina Desser. – Washington, DC : Island Press, 2003. – ISBN 1-55963-419-7
  • Heart of the Horse / photographs by Juliet Van Otteren ; foreword by Jane Goodall ; text by Alan Lightman. – New York : Barnes & Noble, 2004. – ISBN 0-7607-5927-8
  • The Discoveries : Great Breakthroughs in 20th Century Science. – New York : Pantheon Books, 2005. – ISBN 0-375-42168-8
  • A Sense of the Mysterious : Science and the Human Spirit. – New York : Pantheon Books, 2005. – ISBN 0-375-42320-6
  • Ghost. – New York : Pantheon Books, October 2007. – ISBN 978-0-375-42169-3
  • Song of Two Worlds. – Natick MA : AK Peters, 2009. – ISBN 978-1-56881-463-6
  • Mr g – New York, Pantheon Books, January 2012 – ISBN 978-0-307-37999-3
  • The Accidental Universe - Pantheon Books 2014 - ISBN 978-0-307-90858-2
  • Screening Room - Pantheon Books 2015
  • Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine - Pantheon Books March 2018
  • In Praise of Wasting Time - Simon and Schuster/TED 2018


Radio and Video (selected)[edit]


  1. ^ Jovanovic, Rob (September 28, 2005), Big Star: The Short Life, Painful Death, and Unexpected Resurrection of the Kings of Power Pop, Chicago Review Press, p. 139, ISBN 1556525966 
  2. ^ Astrophysical Journal Letters, vol. 187, pg. L1 (1974)
  3. ^ Physical Review D, vol. 8, pg. 364 (1973)
  4. ^ Astrophysical Journal, vol. 253, pg. 842 (1982)
  5. ^ Nature, vol. 262, pg. 196 (1976)

External links[edit]