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Alan Lightman
Born (1948-11-28) November 28, 1948 (age 74)
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
Founder and Chairman of Harpswell
Doctoral advisor Kip S. Thorne

Alan Paige Lightman is an American physicist, writer, and social entrepreneur. He has served on the faculties of Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and is currently a Professor of the Practice of the Humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Lightman played a major role in establishing MIT's "Communication Requirement," which requires all undergraduates to have training in writing and speaking each of their four years. Lightman was one of the first people at MIT to have a joint faculty position in both the sciences and the humanities. In his thinking and writing, Lightman is known for exploring the intersection of the sciences and the humanities, especially the dialogue between science, philosophy, religion, and spirituality.

He is the author of the international bestseller Einstein's Dreams. Einstein's Dreams has been translated into more than 30 languages and adapted into dozens of independent theatrical and musical productions worldwide, most recently (2019) at the off Broadway Prospect Theater in New York. It 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. He is also the founder of Harpswell, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to advance a new generation of women leaders in Southeast Asia.

Lightman has received six honorary doctoral degrees.

Early life and education

Alan Lightman was born and grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. His father Richard Lightman was a movie theater owner and played a major role in desegregating movie theaters in the South in 1962. His mother Jeanne Garretson was a dance teacher and Braille typist. Early on, Lightman demonstrated an interest in both the sciences and the arts by winning city and state science fairs as well as being a state winner of the National Council of Teachers of English award. He graduated from White Station High School. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa with an A.B. in physics from Princeton University in 1970 after completing a senior thesis, titled "Design and construction of a gas scintillation detector capable of time-of-flight measurements of fission isomer decays", under the supervision of Robert Naumann. He then received a Ph.D. in physics from the California Institute of Technology in 1974 after completing a doctoral dissertation, titled "I. Time-dependent accretion disks around compact objects. II. Theoretical frameworks for analyzing and testing gravitation theories", under the supervision of Kip S. Thorne.


Lightman was a postdoctoral fellow in astrophysics at Cornell University (1974–1976); an assistant professor at Harvard University (1976–1979); a senior research scientist at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian (1979–1989); and then a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) (1989– ). During this period he began publishing poetry in small magazines and eventually essays in Science 80, the Smithsonian, The New Yorker, and other magazines.

At MIT, in the mid 1990s Lightman chaired the committee that established the communication requirement for all undergraduates. In 2005, he was a cofounder of the Catalyst Collaborative at MIT, a partnership between MIT and Central Square Theater, in Cambridge, that sponsors plays involving science and the culture of science. In the same year, Lightman cofounded the graduate program in science writing at MIT.

Scientific work

In his scientific work, Lightman has made 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 L. 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.

Literary work

Lightman's essays, articles, and stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Harper's Magazine, Nautilus, The New Yorker, The New York Times and many other publications. His books include:


  • Einstein's Dreams (1993)
  • Good Benito (1995)
  • The Diagnosis (2000)
  • Reunion (2003)
  • Ghost (2007)
  • Song of Two Worlds (poetry) (2009)
  • Mr g (2012)
  • Three Flames (2019)


  • Screening Room (2015)

Collections of essays and fables

  • Time Travel and Papa Joe’s Pipe (1984)
  • A Modern Day Yankee in a Connecticut Court (1986)
  • Dance for Two (1996)
  • Best American Essays 2000, (Guest Editor) (2000)
  • Living with the Genie, (coedited with Christina Desser, and Daniel Sarewitz) (2003)
  • Heart of the Horse (with Juliet von Otteren) (2004)
  • A Sense of the Mysterious (2005)
  • The Accidental Universe (2014)
  • Probable Impossibilities (2021)

Books on science

  • Problem Book in Relativity and Gravitation (with W. H. Press, R. H. Price, and S. A. Teukolsky) (1975)
  • Radiative Processes in Astrophysics (with G. B. Rybicki) (1979)
  • Origins: the Lives and Worlds of Modern Cosmologists (with R. Brawer) (1990)
  • Ancient Light. Our Changing View of the Universe (1991)
  • Great Ideas in Physics (1992, new edition in 2000)
  • Time for the Stars. Astronomy for the 1990s (1992)
  • The Discoveries: Great Breakthroughs in 20th Century Science (2005)

General nonfiction

  • Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine (2018)
  • In Praise of Wasting Time (2018)

Selected articles and essays

A more complete list of Lightman's essays and articles can be found at his MIT faculty page


In 2003, Lightman made his first trip to Southeast Asia, to Cambodia. There he met a Cambodian lawyer named Veasna Chea Leth 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. Lightman and Chea together conceived the idea of a dormitory for female university students in Phnom Penh. That first facility was completed in 2006, the first dormitory for college women in the country.

During this work, Lightman founded Harpswell, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to advance a new generation of women leaders in Southeast Asia. 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. 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. As of Fall 2019, the Cambodian program has about 180 graduates and about 76 current students. Harpswell graduates are 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 Harpswell-ASEAN Program in Women's Leadership 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.

Major awards and honors

  • Honorary doctoral degrees from Bowdoin College (2005), Memphis College of Art (2006), University of Maryland (2006), University of Massachusetts (2010), Colgate University (2017), and Skidmore College (2019)
  • Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition on September 23, 2019, from the United States House of Representatives for contributions to the global Cambodian community.
  • Inaugural winner of 2017 Humanism in Literature award, given by Humanist Hub of Harvard
  • 2016 Distinguished Artist of the Year Award from the St. Botolph Club of Boston
  • 2016 Sydney Award for the best magazine essays of 2011, for "What Came Before the Big Bang?", awarded by David Brooks of The New York Times
  • Screening Room (2015) named by the Washington Post as one of the best books of the year
  • 2011 Sydney Award for the best magazine essays of 2011, for "The Accidental Universe," awarded by David Brooks of The New York Times
  • Gold Medal for humanitarian service to Cambodia, awarded by the government of Cambodia in 2008
  • 2006 John P. McGovern Science and Society Award, given by Sigma Xi
  • Finalist for the 2005 Massachusetts Book Award for A Sense of the Mysterious
  • 2003 Distinguished Alumnus Award from the California Institute of Technology
  • Finalist for the 2000 National Book Award in fiction for The Diagnosis
  • 1998 Gyorgy Kepes Prize in the Arts from MIT’s Council for the Arts
  • Elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1996
  • American Institute of Physics Andrew Gemant Award for linking science to the humanities in 1996
  • Literary Light of the Boston Public Library in 1995
  • 1990 Association of American Publishers’ Award for Origins as the best book of the year in physical science
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