Today, greatness swims by me. The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Many years ago, I was running a seminar at the University
of Kentucky when we hosted Michael James Lighthill. Years later, I met him again
here at the University of Houston. Both times, it was clear that we were dealing
with a force of nature. Lighthill, now Sir James, had far more facets than were
visible to anyone at one time.
He'd been born in France, in 1924. His father was a British mining engineer.
The family name had been Lichtenberg. His father switched to the English
version Lighthill during WW-I.
They went back to England when precocious James was three. When he was twelve,
he and his friend Freeman Dyson went to Winchester College. They finished in three
years, but had to wait until they were seventeen to enter Cambridge. James graduated
in pure math two years later.
While he was at Cambridge, he'd also been the pianist in a piano quartet. He and the
cellist married, and stayed so until his death 53 years later. Music was a mainspring
in Lighthill's life. My wife and I took him to hear a string trio in Kentucky; and,
at intermission, we talked about musical forms. I remarked what strange theater opera was.
With surprising intensity, he said to me, Opera makes sense only when you realize
that you don't hear what the characters are saying, but what they are
Still a teenager in WW-II, Lighthill worked to create means for analyzing supersonic flows.
As he did, he morphed from pure math into applied math. He saw that the fiendishly complex
subject of fluid mechanics was worth his trouble. He founded the field of
He became the reigning expert on ocean wave action. He did fundamental work on physiological
At 35, his career took a strange jog. He was chosen to head the Royal Aircraft Establishment
with its eight thousand employees. His initiative in vertical takeoff and supersonic flight
led to the development of the Harrier Jump Jet
and the Concorde. He did very well in the post, but then left all that to get back to
Next, he was given the Lucasian Chair at
Cambridge. Newton and Dirac had both held it before him; Steven Hawking after him. Ten years
later, he became provost of the
University College in London.
But there he continued to perform in the chamber music series. And he finally retired so he
could get back to research.
Nothing was beyond him. I haven't mentioned his love of literature and languages. He was a
swimmer. At 49, he was first to swim around the Channel Island of Sark. He called the ten
mile swim in those forbidding waters, "a pleasant way to see the scenery." Five times he went
back to repeat the feat, one time accompanied by a basking shark.
But the sixth try was 74-year-old James Lighthill's last experiment in fluid mechanics. The
mitral valve in his heart ruptured after mile number nine and ended, not just one lifetime,
but more like a dozen. Sir James would've been remembered for any one of those many lives --
let alone the whole lot of them.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
T. J., Pedley, Lighthill, Sir (Michael) James (1924-1998). Oxford
Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. 33, (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2004): pp 762-765.
Here is a very complete biography with many photos and other illustrations:
Here are some other good web pages on Sir James:
(image by JHL)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H.