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James A. Van Allen; Discovered Earth's Radiation Belts

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 10, 2006

James A. Van Allen, 91, who helped launch the United States into space with the discovery that radiation belts surround the Earth, died after a heart attack Aug. 9 at the University of Iowa Hospital.

Dr. Van Allen's realization that charged solar particles are trapped by the Earth's magnetic field in concentric rings around the planet was the first major scientific discovery of the space age. It revolutionized scientific understanding of the Earth and the solar system and created an entirely new field of research, called magnetospheric physics.

His breakthrough came with readings from a Geiger counter he sent into space aboard the first U.S. satellite, Explorer 1.

Ecstatic that Explorer 1 made it into orbit, Dr. Van Allen, William H. Pickering of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and rocket scientist Wernher von Braun held a triumphal news conference at the National Academy of Science on Feb. 1, 1958, hoisting a model of the satellite over their heads in what became an iconic image of the era.

But it was only later that the true discovery was revealed. The Geiger counter began clicking madly as soon as it reached orbit. The data from that and subsequent satellites showed that Earth was surrounded by a vast series of nested shells of trapped particle radiation, later named the Van Allen Radiation Belts. Those belts helped scientists understand everything from the Northern Lights to the chemical composition of space and alerted scientists to the vast store of knowledge just outside human reach.

"There was a consideration for some time that there had to be some trapped radiation in the Earth's atmosphere," said David DeVorkin, curator of the history of astronomy and space sciences at the National Aeronautics and Space Museum. "But it was a true surprise that there were two different belts and the level of energy. . . . They thought something might have gone wrong with Explorer 1. The darn thing was saturated."

Dr. Van Allen, who had taken only one undergraduate astronomy class, continued to measure and explore the belts around the Earth, then radiation belts around Jupiter and Saturn as well. Until recently, he pursued the discovery of the edge of the heliopause, the outer boundary of the solar wind. He pored over data still coming in from the almost obsolete Volkswagen-sized Pioneer 10.

The affable, down-to-earth scientist, whose University of Iowa office door was marked with his name and longitude and latitude coordinates, took his achievements in stride. His favorite activity, he said, was teaching the beginning astronomy class at Iowa. "It was like going hunting for rabbits and encountering an elephant instead," he once said of the discovery of the radiation belts.

Time magazine put him on its cover in 1959 and again in 1961. President Ronald Reagan gave him the National Medal of Science in 1987. He received the Vannevar Bush Award from the National Science Board in 1991 and the National Air and Space Museum's trophy in 2006, among many other awards.

None of that acclaim stopped Dr. Van Allen, a longtime proponent of unmanned space probes, from speaking out against manned space exploration.

Reagan's endorsement of a $20 billion manned space station was, he said in Congressional testimony in 1985, "so speculative and so poorly founded that no one of lesser stature would have dared mention it to an informed audience."

"I'm one of the most durable advocates for space exploration around," he said just 13 months ago. He supported the Apollo moon landings and missions to service the Hubble Space Telescope, but he said the United States could explore Mars robotically "at far less cost and far greater quantity and quality of results." That prompted a former senator from Florida to respond, "No Buck Rogers, no bucks."

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."

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