Lighthill, Sir (Michael) James

(1924-1998), applied mathematician and university administrator

by T. J. Pedley

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Lighthill, Sir (Michael) James (1924-1998), applied mathematician and university administrator, was born on 23 January 1924 in the rue Puccini, Paris, the third and youngest child of Ernest Balzar (Bal) Lighthill (1868-1952), mining engineer, son of a Liverpool shipowner, and his wife, Marjorie (1887-1962), daughter of a Yorkshire engineer, L. W. Holmes. James's brother, Olaf, was seventeen years older than he, and his sister, Patricia, was nine years older. In 1917 James's father, Bal, had changed the family name from Lichtenberg to avoid anti-German sentiment. The name was probably of Alsatian origin. The family returned to England in 1927 when Bal retired.

Lighthill was a precocious child, showing especially great ability in mathematics, languages, and music, and revealing a prodigious memory. He was educated at first by his father and then at preparatory schools, until he won a scholarship to Winchester College in 1936. It was a wonderful coincidence that another twelve-year-old scholar at Winchester that year was Freeman Dyson (who for many years worked at the Princeton Institute of Advanced Study). Both pupils were passionate about mathematics and were so far ahead of their fellows that they were allowed to learn what they liked from original sources. At the age of fifteen they were both awarded major scholarships to Trinity College, Cambridge, but were not allowed to go up until 1941, when they were seventeen. At Cambridge the only lectures they attended were those for part three of the mathematical tripos, intended for graduates. Lighthill was particularly keen on the pure mathematics lectures of G. H. Hardy and J. E. Littlewood. He (like Dyson) graduated in 1943 with a first in part two and a distinction in part three.

As an undergraduate Lighthill enjoyed the musical life of Cambridge; during rehearsals for Mozart's G minor piano quartet he (the pianist) met Nancy Alice Dumaresq (b. 1921), cellist and also a mathematician, at Newnham College. They discovered that their families lived next door to each other in Highgate. They were married on 17 February 1945 and remained devoted to each other until Lighthill's death; they had four daughters and a son. Listening to opera and performing piano and chamber music (in both cases 'anything except Tchaikowsky') remained important parts of Lighthill's life--he performed regularly with the University College, London (UCL), chamber music society even when he was provost of UCL. After graduation in 1943 Lighthill was sent to work in the aerodynamics division of the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) at Teddington. Hitherto a pure mathematician, he was persuaded by Sydney Goldstein that the science of fluid mechanics (the study of the motions of liquids and gases and the forces that drive them) was a rich subject to which talented mathematicians could make an important contribution. Lighthill's work compellingly demonstrated the truth of that assertion and he became one of the world's greatest applied mathematicians.

During the Second World War, Lighthill made numerous contributions to supersonic aerodynamics. In those days numerical computation was laborious and time-consuming, involving extensive use of mechanical calculators and five-figure tables. It was essential, therefore, to analyse physical problems mathematically in order to develop formulae that could be used in design. Lighthill was a brilliant analyst, but under the guidance of Goldstein he also developed a deep physical insight which enabled him to explain the essence of his theories in words to the non-mathematical engineers and policymakers who had to use the results. (In later years he took this too far, writing enormously long sentences which, though grammatical and stylish, made too few concessions to those whose training in Victorian literature was less complete than his.)

After the war Lighthill was elected to a prize fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was influenced by another great fluid dynamicist, G. I. Taylor. However, in 1946 Goldstein was elected to the Beyer chair of applied mathematics at the University of Manchester, and he took Lighthill with him as a senior lecturer (aged twenty-two). In 1950 Goldstein moved to Israel and Lighthill succeeded him in the chair, which he occupied until 1959. The thirteen years he spent at Manchester witnessed a tremendous outpouring of original, fundamental, and wide-ranging research, both by Lighthill himself and by his many research students. The subjects included the development, structure, and propagation of shock waves; the interaction of a shock wave with the thin 'boundary layers' of fluid adjacent to solid surfaces; the distortion of a complex flow (for example, in the wake of a moving body) encountering another body; non-linear wave motions, applied both to flood waves in rivers and to traffic flow on highways; and an early application of fluid mechanics to biology (the swimming of spermatozoa). Two pieces of work from this period were particularly influential. The first was a remarkable paper of 1952, 'On sound generated aerodynamically', published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London in two parts, in which Lighthill derived a formula for the acoustic power emitted by highly turbulent flows such as the wakes of jet engines. This paper, inaugurating the subject of aeroacoustics, neither contained nor needed any reference to prior work, but has itself been referred to thousands of times since. The second new subject was that of non-linear acoustics, which developed from Lighthill's 100 page article in Surveys in Mechanics, published to celebrate G. I. Taylor's seventieth birthday in 1956.

Lighthill epitomized applied mathematics: he immersed himself in the scientific or technological details of the phenomenon he was seeking to illuminate; he formulated a sequence of clear mathematical problems that encapsulated the essential features of that phenomenon; he attacked those problems with a formidable battery of mathematical techniques (often newly invented for the purpose: witness the method of strained co-ordinates and his splendid little book, Fourier Analysis and Generalised Functions in 1958); and finally he returned to the original problem with understanding, prediction, and advice. While he was at Manchester, Lighthill also played a leading role in the Aeronautical Research Council, developed a powerful interest in mathematical education, was in 1956 one of the founding associate editors of the Journal of Fluid Mechanics (which immediately became, and remained, the leading journal in the field), founded in 1959 a series of annual conferences called the British Theoretical Mechanics Colloquia (which rapidly became the leading forum for British applied mathematicians), and campaigned for the creation of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, which was eventually founded in 1964 with Lighthill as its first president.

In 1959, at the age of thirty-five, Lighthill was the unexpected choice as director of the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE), at Farnborough, which had a staff of 8000 on more than one site. Highlights of his directorship included major developments in vertical take-off and landing (leading to the Harrier jump jet); in supersonic transport (leading to Concorde); in weather-independent automatic landing; and in low-cost air transport. He also set up a powerful space department which was later run down through lack of government support. In hindsight, a weakness in the RAE and in Lighthill at that time was a failure to recognize the importance of computers in aerodynamic design. While he was at Farnborough, Lighthill continued to publish prolifically, but more reviews and didactic chapters than original research papers, though one exception was a brilliant 12 page article on the swimming of fish, published in the Journal of Fluid Mechanics in 1960.

People were rather afraid of Lighthill until they got to know him (and even after). He was tall, intimidatingly clever, had a loud, arrogant-sounding voice, and was impatient with the slow of comprehension, though very generous with his time and ideas to his students and colleagues. In later years he put on weight and mellowed considerably, willingly helpful to those who needed help (though still somewhat impatient with more senior colleagues). At all times he was a stimulating lecturer, accompanying his words with minutely written overhead transparencies and, whenever possible, acting out the phenomena being discussed; this became both easier and more memorable after he turned to biological applications of fluid dynamics in the 1960s and 1970s.

After five years at Farnborough, Lighthill returned to full-time research in 1964 as Royal Society research professor at Imperial College, London (he had been elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1953 at the age of twenty-nine), where he remained for five years. He also served as secretary (physical sciences) and vice-president of the Royal Society (1965-9). At Imperial he wrote influential articles on the theories of wave motion and of rotating fluids, with application to the atmosphere and oceans. He also pioneered the application of fluid mechanics in biology, which remained his principal preoccupation for more than fifteen years. He wrote important surveys of undulatory fish-swimming (though all the main mechanisms had been foreshadowed in his 1960 paper), of undulatory micro-organism swimming (though the main feature was contained in a paper by his student Hancock in 1953), of animal flight, and of physiological fluid dynamics (blood flow, breathing, and so on). This work was all brought together in Mathematical Biofluiddynamics (1975). Administratively, Lighthill's main achievement while at Imperial was the formation in 1966 of the physiological flow studies unit, bringing together physiologists, physicians, and physical scientists, for interdisciplinary research.

In 1969 Lighthill was elected to the Lucasian chair of mathematics at Cambridge, in which he succeeded Paul Dirac (and, earlier, Isaac Newton) and preceded Stephen Hawking. Here his main research was in biology and waves (his advanced textbook Waves in Fluids appeared in 1978), and he contributed enthusiastically to teaching. He was also involved in many national and international committees, reporting on a variety of topics: postgraduate training in the UK, direct dialling for long-distance telephone calls, the future of telecommunications, control engineering, and artificial intelligence, which he notoriously declared (in 1973) to have no future. He became president of the International Commission on Mathematical Instruction (1971-4), president of the International Union of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics (1984-8), and chairman of the International Council of Scientific Unions committee on the international decade for natural disaster relief (1990-95). He had a strong influence in India, where he encouraged the study of monsoon dynamics, a branch of geophysical fluid dynamics with special relevance there.

Ten years in Cambridge were enough for Lighthill, who missed the wider influence he could exert as leader of a large organization, and in 1979 he was happy to be appointed as provost of University College, London, in succession to Noel Annan. Here his priority was to enhance UCL's already outstanding academic strength, not least by encouraging women academics to fulfil their high potential. He was also extremely popular. His formidable memory enabled him to come to know and to remember the interests of every professor and many other staff. He was unable to devote much time to research, but publications continued (for example, on the dynamics of the inner ear), including one undergraduate textbook, An Informal Introduction to Theoretical Fluid Dynamics (1986). After his retirement in 1989 he kept an office at UCL where he did some research, though most of his output consisted of long survey articles and lectures. He travelled widely. As well as his fellowship of the Royal Society, Lighthill received many honours, notably his knighthood in 1971 and the royal and Copley medals of the Royal Society, the former in 1964 and the latter posthumously in 1998. He was elected foreign associate or honorary member of nine national academies of science or engineering, including those of the USA (both), Russia, and France (he was fluent in French and Russian). He received twenty-four honorary doctorates around the world, having not taken a PhD in his younger days. His collected papers were published by Oxford University Press in four volumes in 1997.

No account of Lighthill's life would be complete without reference to his principal form of physical recreation: swimming. He could cover long distances using his 'old English backstroke'. On holiday every year, after detailed study of tides and currents, he would embark on an 'adventure swim', preferably round an island. There were many anecdotes: once he swam round Stromboli while it was erupting, and once he was accompanied for several minutes by a basking shark as he swam round Lundy. His favourite island was Sark. He was the first person to swim round it, in 1973, and he successfully repeated the feat five times (the distance was about 10 miles, and on a calm day it would take six hours). On 17 July 1998 he had almost completed the swim once more, having been in the water for nine hours, when his mitral valve ruptured and he died. Following cremation at St Marylebone crematorium, in Finchley, London, on 27 July, his ashes were scattered on Hampstead Heath. He was survived by his wife and five children.


Collected papers of Sir James Lighthill, ed. M. Yousuff Hussaini, 4 vols. (1997)
autobiographical notes, RS
Recollections of Sir James Lighthill (1999)
The Independent (22 July 1998)
The Independent (1 Aug 1998)
The Times (20 July 1998)
Daily Telegraph (20 July 1998)
The Guardian (21 July 1998)
CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1998)
Yearbook of the Royal Society

Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Torkel Weis-Fogh
CAC Cam., corresp. with Sir Edward Bullard  FILM  Aerodynamically generated sound, film made by US National Committee for Fluid Mechanics Films

Elliott & Fry, photograph, 1959, NPG [see illus.]
photograph, repro. in The Times
photograph, repro. in Daily Telegraph
photograph, repro. in The Guardian
photograph, repro. in The Independent (22 July 1998)
photographs, repro. in Recollections of Sir James Lighthill

Wealth at death  
£33,113: probate, 6 Nov 1998, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved


GO TO THE OUP ARTICLE (Sign-in required)