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 into a white, upper-middle-class, Jewish family in Memphis, Tennessee and grew up there during the racially divided and inflamed 1950s and 1960s.
His paternal great grandfather, Joseph, immigrated from Hungary to the U.S. in 1880 and settled in Nashville. Uneducated, “Papa Joe Lightman” started a stone quarry and construction business and built some of the prominent public buildings in Nashville. Papa Joe’s son, M.A., Lightman's paternal grandfather, started buying movie theaters in the South in 1916, during the silent-film era, and eventually created a movie theater circuit spanning half a dozen southern states. M.A. was a larger than life figure. At age forty three, he swam across the Mississippi River. For a number of years, he was president of the Motion Picture Theater Owners of America. He also devoted himself to civic action and, among many other activities, was president of the Jewish Welfare Fund and head of fund raising for the all-black Collins Chapel Hospital in Memphis. M.A.’s wife, Celia, graduated from the University of Kentucky in Lexington and was well read and kept many books in the house. Lightman’s maternal grandfather, David Garretson, dropped out of school in the eighth grade to support his family after his father died at a young age. David began sweeping the floors of the Crescent Box Factory in New Orleans and eventually rose to become owner and president of the factory. David’s wife, Hattie Levy, was graduated from Wellesley College in 1920 and, for years, would mail young Alan a scrap of paper each week with an obscure new vocabulary word for him to look up and report back to her.
Lightman’s father, Richard, second son of M.A., was intellectually and artistically inclined. He worked as a businessman in the movie theater business started by his father. In the early 1960s, Richard played a key role in the civil rights movement by being the first movie theater owner in Memphis to integrate his theaters, only the second business of any kind to do so in that pivotal city. Lightman’s mother, Jeanne, was a ballroom dance teacher and also a volunteer Braille typist, making books available to the blind.
Much of the above family history can be found in Lightman's memoir Screening Room.
From an early age, Lightman was interested in both science and the arts. While in high school, he 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 won the statewide creative writing competition from the National Council of Teachers of English. 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 and won the Kusaka Memorial Prize in Physics for his senior thesis.
In 1976, Lightman married Jean Greenblatt (now going by the name Jean Lightman), a painter and the first female president of the Boston Guild of Artists in that organization's 100+ year history. Alan and Jean have two daughters, Elyse and Kara.
Lightman 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. He became 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. 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. He currently teaches at Massachusetts Institute of Technology as Professor of the Practice of the Humanities.
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; 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; his calculations, with Stuart Shapiro, of the distribution of stars around a massive black hole and the rate of destruction of those stars by the hole; 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; and his work on unusual radiation processes, such as unsaturated inverse Compton scattering, in thermal media, also with wide application in astrophysics. 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.
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, Nautilus, 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. 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. His essay "The Accidental Universe," was chosen by the New York Times as one of the best essays of the year for 2011, as was his essay "What Came Before the Big Bang?" published in 2014. His book The Accidental Universe 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. His most recent books are In Praise of Wasting Time, and In Search of Stars on an Island in Maine, about the way in which religion and science differ in their methods and approach to truth.
In 2003, Lightman made his first trip to Southeast Asia, to Cambodia. There he met a Cambodian lawyer named Veasna Chea who told him that when she had been going to university in Phnom Penh in the mid 1990s, she and a handful of female students lived underneath the university building, in the two-meter crawl space between the bottom of the building and the mud, because there was no housing for female university students. Male students could live in the Buddhist pagodas or safely rent rooms together, but those options were not available to female students. Lightman and Chea together conceived the idea of a dormitory for female university students in Phnom Penh. Lightman raised the money to build the facility, which was completed in 2006, the first such facility in the country. During this work, 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. Harpswell now operates two dormitory and leadership centers in Phnom Penh. In addition to providing free housing, food, and medical care, the facility gives outstanding 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, strategies for civic engagement, leadership training, and discussion and analysis of national and international events. After its first two years of operation, the Harpswell students were first in their class at most of the major universities in Cambodia. As of Fall 2018, the Cambodian program has about 160 graduates and about 76 current students. On average, Harpswell graduates earn five to ten times the salary of an average Cambodian woman and are now advancing into leadership positions as project managers at NGOs, lawyers, businesswomen, journalists, engineers, health care workers, teachers and professors, government staff, and bankers.
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, plus Nepal. 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, who are flown to Penang from their respective countries. We are also developing a strong alumnae association. Further information is available at the website of the Harpswell Foundation.
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 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. He is on the Editorial Board of Undark, an online magazine about science and society.