MIT professor’s book digs into the eclectic, textually linked reading choices of people in medieval London.
Alan P. Lightman, a physicist and novelist acclaimed by one critic as "equally at home in the realm of human passions and in the rarefied world of atoms and equations," has been named the inaugural holder of new chair honoring the first dean of MIT's School of Humanities and Social Science.
Dr. Lightman, author of Good Benito (1995) and Einstein's Dreams, (1993), both published by Pantheon, has been appointed the John E. Burchard Professor of Science and Writing, it was announced by Provost Mark S. Wrighton. The resources are provided by the Arthur J. Conner (1888) Trust.
The late Dean Burchard, a member of the Class of 1923, served as Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Science for 16 years (1948-64). Trained as an architect at MIT, he designed Hayden Library and also wrote MIT in World War II: QED (1948 Technology Press), the story of the Institute's role in World War II.
Professor Lightman is also a man of wide interests. He is a professor of science and writing in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies, which he headed from 1991 until this spring, and a senior lecturer in the Department of Physics. He holds the AB degree in physics from Princeton University (1970) and the MS (1973) and PhD (1974), both in theoretical physics, from the California Institute of Technology.
Before coming to MIT in 1989, Professor Lightman taught astronomy and physics at Harvard. His scientific research is in the area of theoretical astrophysics, and he has authored two widely used textbooks. His essays on the human side of science, collected into two books, have appeared in many publications, including The New Yorker, The New York Times, Harper's and Science '86. A study of the social and psychological factors in the scientific process, Origins, coauthored with Roberta Brawer, won the Association of American Publishers award for the most outstanding book in physical science in 1990. He is a Fellow both of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
During his tenure as head of the Writing Program, Professor Lightman was "instrumental in strengthening writing and humanistic studies at MIT by bringing world-class writers to the program and through his own personal distinction as a new contemporary novelist," said Professor Philip S. Khoury, Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Science.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 7, 1995.