Diane Ackerman was born Diane Fink in Waukegan, Illinois, in 1948, to Sam Fink and Marsha Tischler Fink. The family moved to Allentown, Pennsylvania, when Ackerman was eight. Growing up, Ackerman delighted in nature. A tomboy who spent much of her time reading and writing, she often had to hide her interests from her parents, who did not approve of such pursuits. In 1967, Ackerman began attending college at Boston University but, by her sophomore year, had transferred to Pennsylvania State University. It was at Pennsylvania State that she met her husband, Paul West, who was teaching a contemporary literature class and took an interest in her poetry. In 1970, after receiving a bachelor of arts in English, she decided to continue her education at Cornell University, despite wanting to travel. At Cornell, Ackerman earned an M.F.A. (1973), as well as an M.A. (1976) and a Ph.D. (1978), both in English literature. She and her husband settled in Ithaca, New York, in the 1970’s.
When working on her dissertation, Ackerman requested a poet, a scientist, and a comparative literature professor to be on her doctoral committee because she felt her studies could not be understood from a single perspective. She believed her work had elements of art, literature, and science in it. Carl Sagan was the scientist assigned to her dissertation committee, and she began working closely with him. In fact, the dedication poem in Planets is for Sagan. Also when writing Planets, Ackerman spent time doing night watches in a jet propulsion lab and worked with astronomers.
From 1980 to 1983, Ackerman taught English at Columbia and Cornell universities. She received her pilot’s license in Williamsburg, Virginia, in the early 1980’s, which served as the inspiration for her memoir On Extended Wings. Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, she wrote and published prolifically, drawing on her personal experiences and her love of nature. She also continued to teach writing at various schools, including the College of William and Mary and Ohio University. In 1995, she served as host for PBS’s five-episode NOVA series Mystery of the Senses, based on her book.