James van Allen has died

By Phil Plait | August 9, 2006 10:35 am

I’m very sad about this: James van Allen, a pioneer in space science, has died.

If his name sounds familiar, it’s because he discovered the doughnut-shaped regions of intense radiation surrounding the Earth (caused by the capture of solar particles in the Earth’s magnetic field). They’re named the van Allen belts in his honor.

(L-R) William Pickering, James Van Allen, and Wernher von Braun hold up a full-size model of Explorer 1 back in 1958.

van Allen was at the University of Iowa for a long, long time. I was fortunate enough to talk to him a few years back. I called him on the phone because I wanted his opinion on Moon hoax believers using the van Allen belts as "proof" that Apollo was faked. This was in the summer of 2000, and he was 85 years old, yet he was chipper, sharp, and funny. We joked for a while about it, and he was very generous with his time. He made quite an impression on me– he worked on the very first American satellite, Explorer 1, which discovered that radiation, and has gone on to a distinguished career in high-energy space science, yet he took a half hour of his life to explain to me what happened back then in the beginning of the space program, how NASA used the knowledge gained from his experiments to make sure the astronauts were safe from radiation, and what’s been learned of the belts since then.

He was a giant, a giant, among scientists.

More information about his incredible career is at spaceref.com.


Comments (11)

  1. That is a beautiful eulogy. You are very fortunate to have had that conversation with him, too. It seems like the TRULY great of the greats are the ones who take the time to share their enthusiasm. And really, wouldn’t you think that would be a far more satisfying ego boost than to cold-shoulder the curious?

    The best, most enduring way to honor his memory is to inspire more people (of all ages, not just children) to pursue science and math as either serious or just plain fun activity. I appreciate that you do your part!

  2. aiabx

    If you still have a record of the things he said, I think people would be interested in hearing them. I know I would. I believe the best act of remembrance for a scientist is to spread his knowledge, ideas and experiences as far as possible.

  3. Pete

    A wonderful career and a wonderful man. The world is worse off.

  4. Evolving Squid

    A loss to the scientific community indeed!

  5. Grand Lunar

    Great that you were able to talk to such a great man. Glad that he had a long an prosperous life. Not many have achived in their carrers what Dr. Van Allen has.

  6. Wayne

    I am very sad at this news. Being a magnetospheric physicist, he really was the father of my field. In fact, I used to use the fact that he was still around as an example of how young the field is (ie, those who made fundamental discoveries are still working in the field). Somehow, magnetospheric physics seems older today.

  7. Grayson Mattila

    This is sad news; my condolences to his family.

  8. Gary Ansorge

    ,,,and the Crusty Curmedgeon says,
    ” You know, he wasn’t the first to be involved with the radiation belts. Several years before their discovery, they were predicted by a self educated physicist, who’s name escapes me, but I read about him in a science mag in the late 1950s. ”

    Because he had no credentials, his proposal was ignored, then when they were verified by van Allen, his name was lost and buried. Al I can remember after all this time is that he was a Greek imagre to the USA.

    Gary 7

  9. A man like him never truly dies; he lives on as long as we remember him, and that’s going to be a long, long time, I’m sure. (Yeah yeah, very Star Trek II, I know.)

  10. Jonas

    At least he had a long life.

  11. Brown

    It was my pleasure to be one of Dr. Van Allen’s students in his General Astronomy class at the University of Iowa in the fall semester of 1978.

    At the beginning of the semester, the lecture room (one of the lagest on campus, in a building that was later named for Van Allen) was full of students who seeminglywanted to learn from Van Allen. But that changed quickly, as it became clear that Van Allen’s class would require a considerable amount of work. As it became clear that the class required work, the empty space in the lecture hall grew rapidly.

    Dr. Van Allen gave his lectures while wearing a rumpled lab coat that reminded everyone of Lt. Columbo. Before beginning each lecture, he would slip over his head what appeared to be a deformed wire coat hanger with a microphone taped to it. With this plain but effective apparatus, he was able to speak to the students while writing on the chalkboard.

    He made sure we learned about at least one star each week. In theory, we would be able to find and observe the star ourselves, because we would be outside on EVERY clear night plotting the position of the moon in relation to the other stars, using little more than a strip of clear plastic with degree markings we’d made with a marking pen. As we approached the end of the semester, we had to turn in reports showing our observations of the moon, along with a chart showing the moon’s position and phase.

    On the day these reports were due, Dr. Van Allen announced how many measurements he himself had made over the past weeks. The students were stunned, for two reasons. First, most of them had made only a handful of measurements, and their prof was apparently expecting them to have made many more than that. (The excuse “There were a lot of cloudy nights!” wasn’t going to fly with this professor!) Second, the students were amazed that this man had been performing the very same experiment HIMSELF the entire time!

    Dr. Van Allen was one of the most down-to-earth teachers on campus. If you said hello to him, he was quick to return a friendly smile and hello, and happy to visit with you about your studies.

    I happened to bump into him in 1995, ten years after he retired, while visiting the Physics and Astronomy department offices in Van Allen Hall. As I waited my turn for assistance from the department, I suddenly found that Dr. Van Allen was standing right next to me. “Why, Dr. Van Allen,” I exclaimed, and promptly introduced myself. He was pleased to set aside his business of the moment and visit with me. I told him that I had taken his Astronomy class late in the 1970s and that it had really contributed to my love of astronomy. Dr. Van Allen and I chatted for a while about current events and our plans for the future.

    He was a great space scientist. And a great teacher. And a great guy.


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