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No. 2250:
Sir Michael James Lighthill

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 thinking.

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 aeroacoustics. He became the reigning expert on ocean wave action. He did fundamental work on physiological fluid problems. 

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 research. 

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 fine 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 work.

(Theme music)

T. J., Pedley, Lighthill, Sir (Michael) James (1924-1998). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. 33, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004): pp 762-765.

Click here for a biography of Sir Michael.

Lighthill and waves

(image by JHL)