It wasn’t until 1981 that Alan Lightman began publishing essays about science, the human side of science, and the “mind of science,” beginning with Smithsonian Magazine and moving to Science 82, The New Yorker, and other magazines. Since that time, Lightman’s essays, short fiction, and reviews have appeared in The American Scholar, The Atlantic Monthly, Boston Review, Daedalus, Discover, Exploratorium,ta, Harper’s, Harvard Magazine, Inc Technololgy, Nature, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, Science 86, The Sciences, Smithsonian, Story, Technology Review, and World Monitor.
In 1989, Lightman was appointed professor of science and writing, and senior lecturer in physics, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. From 1991 to 1997, he headed the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies at MIT. During this period, he helped create a new Communication Requirement at MIT (first instituted in 2001), which requires all MIT undergraduates to have a course equivalent in writing or speaking each of their four years. In 1995, he was appointed John E. Burchard professor of humanities at MIT, a chair named after the first dean of humanities at MIT (1948 – 1964). In 2001, Lightman cofounded the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT, which accepted its first students in the fall of 2002. In the same year, he resigned his chair to allow more time for his writing and became adjunct professor at MIT. In 2004, Lightman cofounded the Catalyst Collaborative at MIT, which is a collaboration between MIT and the Underground Railway Theater of Boston. The Catalyst Collaborative aims to convey science and the culture of science through theater. CC@MIT commissions new plays and produces existing plays that involve science or scientists.
As both a distinguished physicist and an accomplished novelist, Lightman is one of only a small number of people who straddle the sciences and the humanities. He was the first professor at MIT to receive a joint appointment in the sciences and the humanities. His essay “In the Name of Love?” was the first article about love and language published in Nature, the prestigious international science journal (October 8, 2001), and his “The First Law of Thermodynamics” was the first short story published in the physics journal Physics Today (May 2005). He has lectured at more than 100 universities nationwide about the similarities and differences in the ways that scientists and artists view the world.
In his scientific work, Lightman has made fundamental contributions to the theory of astrophysical processes under conditions of 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. He is best known for his discovery, with Douglas Eardley, of a secular instability in accretion disks, which have wide application in astronomy; for his proof, with David Lee, that all gravitation theories obeying the Weak Equivalence Principle must be metric theories of gravity; for his discovery of the negative heat behavior of optically thin, hot thermal plasmas dominated by electron-positron pairs; and for his work on unsaturated inverse Compton scattering in thermal media, also with wide application in astrophysics. His research articles have appeared in The Physical Review, The Astrophysical Journal, Reviews of Modern Physics, Nature, and other journals of physics and astrophysics. For his contributions to physics, he was elected a fellow of the American Physical Society in 1989 and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science the same year. In 1990, he chaired the science panel of the National Academy of Sciences Astronomy and Astrophysics Survey Committee for the 1990s. He is a past chair of the High Energy Division of the American Astronomical Society.
Lightman has also been interested in science education and the philosophy of science. His work in science studies and in science education has been published in The American Scholar, The Physics Teacher, Science, Science and Children, The Science Teacher, and Social Studies of Science.
Lightman’s novel Einstein’s Dreams was an international best seller.
D.White (material from his web site)