Lighton Synge

John Lighton Synge

John Lighton Synge (March 23, 1897March 30, 1995) was an Irish mathematician and physicist.


Synge was born 1897 in Dublin, Ireland, in a Protestant family and educated at St. Andrew's College, Dublin. He entered Trinity College, Dublin in 1915. He won a Foundation Scholarship in his first year, which was quite remarkable because it was normally won by third year students. While an undergraduate he spotted a non-trivial error in a leading textbook in advanced mathematical analysis, written by E. T. Whittaker, and notified Whittaker of the error. In 1919 he was awarded an M.A. in both Mathematics and Experimental Physics, and also a gold medal for outstanding merit.

He married Eleanor Mabel Allen in 1918. Their daughter Cathleen was born in 1923 and daughter Isabel born in 1930. Synge's daughter Cathleen Synge Morawetz went on to become a distinguished mathematician too. Synge's uncle John Millington Synge was a famous playwright, and Synge is more distantly related to the 1952 Nobel prizewinner in chemistry Richard Laurence Millington Synge.

Career in mathematics and physics

Synge was appointed to the position of lecturer at Trinity College, and then accepted a position at the University of Toronto in 1920. From 1920 until 1925, Synge was an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Toronto. He returned to Trinity College in 1925, where he was elected to a fellowship and was appointed to the chair of Natural Philosophy (the old name for Physics). He was a member of the Mathematical Society of America and the London Mathematical Society. He was treasurer of the Royal Irish Academy in 1929. He went back to Toronto in 1930. He was appointed Professor of Applied Mathematics and became Head of the Department of Applied Mathematics.

He spent some of 1939 at Princeton University, and in 1941, he was a visiting professor at Brown University. In 1943 he was appointed as Chairman of the Mathematics Department of Ohio State University. Three years later he became Head of the Mathematics Department of the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, where John Nash was one of his students. He spent a short time as a ballistic mathematician in the US Air Force between 1944 and 1945.

He returned to Ireland in 1948, accepting the position of Senior Professor in the School of Theoretical Physics at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. This school had been set up in 1940, and had several outstanding members, including Erwin Schrödinger (who contributed to quantum mechanics), who was also a Senior Professor.

His contributions

Synge made outstanding contributions to different fields of work including classical mechanics, general mechanics and geometrical optics, gas dynamics, hydrodynamics, elasticity, electrical networks, mathematical methods, differential geometry, and Einstein’s theory of relativity. He studied an extensive range of mathematical physics problems, but his best known work revolved around using geometrical methods in general relativity.

He was one of the first physicists to seriously study the interior of a black hole, and is sometimes credited with anticipating the discovery of the structure of the Schwarzschild vacuum (a black hole).

He also created the game of Vish in which players compete to find circularity (vicious circles) in dictionary definitions.


Synge received many honours for his works. He was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1943. He was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and was president of the Royal Irish Academy from 1961 until 1964.

He was the first recipient of the Henry Marshall Tory Medal of the Royal Society of Canada.

John Lighton Synge retired in 1972, and during his time at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, about 12% of all workers in the relativity theory studied there. Professor Herman Bondi, who gave the first J. L. Synge Public Lecture in 1992, had this to say: “Every one of the other 88% has been deeply influenced by his geometric vision and the clarity of his expression”.

During his long scientific career, Synge published over 200 papers and 11 books.

He died on 30 March, 1995.

His personality and achievements

He is described as a kind and generous man. He encouraged and inspired several generations of students. He will be remembered by them with gratitute, fondness, and the deepest respect. He is one of the few people who make mathematics do useful work for solids, liquids, gases, and space.

Synge was a keen cyclist, was passionately interested in sailing, and painted some very nice pictures, including a picture representing Schrödinger held in the hands of God, thinking of theories.

The John L. Synge Award was established by the Royal Society of Canada, in 1986, to honour John Lighton Synge, one of the first mathematicians working in Canada to be internationally recognised for his research in mathematics. He was a member of the Royal Irish Academy, and was at the University of Toronto, and later a senior Professor at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.



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