James Lighthill

Times obituary

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Sir James Lighthill, mathematician and Provost of University College London, 1979-89, died while attempting to swim around Sark on July 17 aged 74. He was born on January 23, 1924.

Twenty-five years ago, James Lighthill became the first person to swim around the Channel Island of Sark, calling it "a most pleasant way to see the scenery". He subsequently repeated the feat five times, but on Friday, nine hours into another attempt and nearing the end of the nine-mile swim, he was found dead in the water. His passion for swimming may have brought him to wide public attention, but it is for his brilliant and wide-ranging contributions to applied mathematics over many years that Lighthill will be remembered.

Considered by his peers to be one of the great mathematicians of the century, perhaps even a genius, Lighthill was a pioneer in supersonic aeronautics, in oceanographic studies and astrophysics. He virtually created the field of biofluiddynamics, the study of how animals move through air or water, as well as the study of the fluid mechanics of the cardiovascular system. His ideas touched everything from earthquakes and the boundary currents in the Indian Ocean to the movement of road traffic. He held the senior mathematical chair at Cambridge, and became a leading adviser on government scientific policy.

Michael James Lighthill was something of a child prodigy. He won a scholarship from Winchester to Trinity College, Cambridge, when he was just 15, though he did not go up until two years later.

While at Cambridge he met Nancy Dumaresq, a mathematician at Newnham, and when she began to work at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, he tried for a job there himself.

The selection board, however, quickly realised that he had an ulterior as well as a dutiful motive, and sent him instead to the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington. There his work on supersonic and hypersonic aerodynamics flourished, as did the romance with his fiancee, whom he married in 1945.

One of his principal mathematical interests was the study of fluid dynamics, and he was said to have used this over the years as he planned his long distance swims around islands all over the world -- escapades about which he spoke with pride and enthusiasm.

As a prize fellow of Trinity after the war, he went to teach at Manchester University, first as a senior lecturer and then as a professor.

Already he was becoming well known for work in both pure and applied maths. He also did theoretical work on jet engines, and Lighthill's law states that the acoustic power radiated by a jet is proportional to the eighth power of the jet speed.

Neither his careful dynamic calculations nor the apparent connivance of the railway guard, however, excused the offence of jumping from a slowly moving train when he found that the Irish Mail did not stop at Crewe. He was fined Pounds 1.

In 1959 Lighthill moved to be Director of the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough for five years, winning both the Gold Medal of the Royal Aeronautical Society and the Royal Medal of the Royal Society, of which he had been made a fellow at the early age of 29 and which he later served as vice president.

At Farnborough he promoted research into short-range air transport and also created a new space department. In 1962 he spoke optimistically about a manned craft taking off from Earth, being used an manoeuvred in space and then returning to Earth. He mentioned the possibility of a "dart-shaped" supersonic aircraft, and his work in wind-tunnels was to prove critical to the development of Concorde.

The following year, Lighthill challenged the Government to back research he had been engaged in with Post Office engineers and industrial scientists in the development of commercial television and communications satellites. Although Britain did not compete successfully in the space race, Lighthill was later the recipient, on his country's behalf, of two capsules of soil from the Moon, collected by unmanned Soviet spaceships.

In 1964 he became the Royal Society's resident professor at Imperial College, London, before returing to Trinity College, Cambridge, five years later as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, a chair he held until 1979, when he was succeeded by Stephen Hawking. As well as continuing to publish on fluid dynamics -- particularly the theory of waves in ocean and atmosphere -- he worked on chaos theory and the unpredictability of large systems.

In 1979 Lighthill took on a more administrative role, as Provost of University College London, where his scientific interests were a considerable contrast to the literary and historical pursuits of his predecessor, Lord Annan. He found the college budget being squeezed but, despite some initial doubts about his suitability for the post, he was acknowledged to have maintained academic standards. He particularly supported work in the life sciences and in the new disciplines of biotechnology. He helped to win government backing for the establishment of a biotechnology company in collaboration with scientists from other institutions, specialising in the use of microbes in the synthesis of new products.

Lighthill was a member of numerous learned societies at home and abroad, and held 24 honorary doctorates. He served on several public bodies, including the Advisory Committee on Technology, the Natural Environment Research Council (1965-70), the board of the Post Office (1972-74) and a committee on natural disaster reduction. He was president of the International Union of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics from 1984 to 1988.

In 1975 he produced a report for the Science Research Council, adjudicating on whether Britain should devote considerable resources to the development of artificial intelligence.

He was discouraging about the prospects for intelligent robots, and had grave doubts about any hopes of bridging the gap between man and machine. The work that had been done up to that time, he wrote, "casts doubts upon whether the whole concept of artificial intelligence as an integrated field of research is a valid one".

A very stylish lecturer, Lighthill used to act out the complicated motions of swimming fish or flying birds. He was knighted in 1971 and made an honorary fellow of Trinity in 1986.

His Collected Scientific Papers were published in four volumes by Oxford University Press last year.

He is survived by his wife and by their son and four daughters.

© The Times, 1998
From Sir Eric Ash, Treasurer of the Royal Society, and others

Sir, The attempt to portray the life and achievements of Sir James Lighthill within the constraints of This obituary (July 20) is clearly a daunting task. The few words devoted to his period as Provost of University College London failed to provide a picture which we, who were eyewitnesses, could recognise.

James Lighthill was indeed a brilliant scientist; but he was also a polymath, with knowledge, insight and enthusiasm for the arts and humanities. He would invariably take the chair at inaugural lectures and, in thanking the speaker, provide an erudite coda -- for any discipline -- be it Egyptology, literature (illuminated by his ability to read in most modern European languages), medicine, or our own field of engineering. He was able to inspire his colleagues over the whole range of academic disciplines.

Without the slightest doubt, during his watch, Lighthill succeeded in raising academic standards and in enhancing the international recognition accorded to University College.

Yours faithfully,

Treasurer, The Royal Society,

President, The Royal Academy of Engineering,

Vice-Provost, University College London,
The Royal Society, 6 Carlton House Terrace, SW1Y 5AG.

July 23 1998 © The Times, 1998