|Page 2 of 2 <|
James A. Van Allen; Discovered Earth's Radiation Belts
Born in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, on Sept. 7, 1914, Dr. Van Allen grew up reading Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines, doing chores such as splitting wood and tending the family's garden and flock of chickens. He said watching the annual August Perseid meteor shower turned him on to geophysical topics, but he also tinkered, building a Tesla coil that produced foot-long sparks, taking apart the engine and transmission of a Model-T Ford and assembling crystal radios.
"I was a kind of a one-man army,'' he told the Christian Science Monitor in 1989. "I could solder circuits together, I could turn out things on the lathe, I could work with rockets and balloons. I'm a kind of a hybrid between an engineer and a physicist and astronomer.''
He was nominated to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis but failed the physical exam. He graduated from Iowa Wesleyan College, and he helped prepare research instruments for the Byrd Antarctic expedition, which one of his professors joined. He received a master's degree in 1936 and a doctoral degree in 1939, both in physics, from the University of Iowa.
Just before World War II, he worked on the development of proximity fuses for bombs, a significant advancement. He worked for the Carnegie Institution in Washington and later the Applied Physics Laboratory of Johns Hopkins University.
In a memoir, he said his work was developing a rugged vacuum tube that he tested by firing into the Potomac River from Southern Maryland and recovered with a post-hole digger. Montgomery County commissioned him as a deputy sheriff so he could carry a loaded revolver "for coping with hypothetical hijackers on our daily expeditions to and from the test site," he wrote. He served in the Navy in the South Pacific during World War II, overseeing the use and revision of the proximity fuses.
After the war, he returned to Johns Hopkins and continued to work on rockets and the use of balloons powered by rockets to recover information from Earth's upper atmosphere. Time magazine pegged the start of the space race to an informal meeting of scientists in Dr. Van Allen's Silver Spring living room in 1950. The men came up with the idea of designating an international geophysical year to put attention on Earth and space sciences. The United States designated it for 1957-58, and that prompted the Soviet Union to rush Sputnik into space.
Dr. Van Allen returned to the University of Iowa to be chairman of its physics department and retired from active teaching in 1985. But he continued to work in science as an emeritus professor and on a number of scientific boards.
Survivors include his wife of 60 years, Abigail Fithina Halsey Van Allen of Iowa City, Iowa; five children, Cynthia Van Allen Schaffner of New York, Dr. Margot Van Allen Cairns of Vancouver, B.C., Sarah Van Allen Trimble of Washington, Thomas Van Allen of Aspen, Colo., and Peter Van Allen of Philadelphia; and seven grandchildren.
One of his daughters told the Chicago Tribune in 1999 that her father's endless experiments were part of family lore. He rigged the family car to start with the pull of a cord, like a lawn mower. When one of his sons drove the car into a ditch on a snowy Iowa night, Dr. Van Allen tucked a pulley into his pocket, walked to the accident and extracted the car using only muscle and pulley power.
"I believe in scientific inquiry for its own sake," he said. "I think the history of science gives ample examples that pure investigation has enormous benefit. . . . I can't tell you what this might be good for, but learning about nature is important. And lovely things turn up."