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Van Allen, James 1914-2006

Van Allen, James 1914-2006

(James Alfred Van Allen)


See index for CA sketch: Born September 7, 1914, in Mount Pleasant, IA; died of heart failure, August 9, 2006, in Iowa City, IA. Physicist, educator, and author. Van Allen was best known for his discovery of Earth's magnetosphere, now known as the Van Allen Radiation Belts. A brilliant child who read science magazines and tinkered with inventions on his family's Iowa farm, he almost attended the U.S. Naval Academy but was rejected as physically unfit. He therefore attended Iowa Wesleyan College, graduating in 1935. Van Allen then took graduate courses at the State University of Iowa, where he finished his master's degree in 1936 and his doctorate in 1939. He accepted a post as a research fellow at the Carnegie Institute, and when America entered World War II, enlisted in the navy. While in the military, Van Allen was noted for his advanced work on proximity bombs and fuses—an explosive device that is set off when something comes near it. After the war, he joined Johns Hopkins University as a researcher. Here he studied the Earth's upper atmosphere using balloons and rockets; this work led to his discovery that the auroras were caused by electrons entering the atmosphere. Meeting with other scientists, Van Allen helped form a plan to draw more attention to space sciences by designating an international geophysical year for 1957 to 1958. This announcement is credited with spurring the Soviet Union to hurry and launch a satellite into space, thus beginning the space race between the two countries. Though the Soviets got the first satellite in space, Van Allen, along with scientists such as Wernher von Braun and William H. Pickering at California's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, worked on the Explorer I satellite. It was this space probe that led to the discovery of the magnetosphere. The discovery of the Van Allen belts were important in such areas as learning about the chemical elements existing in space. His work launched the specialized science of magnetospheric physics. Having joined the State University of Iowa's faculty in 1951, Van Allen would head its physics department and be named the Carver Professor of Physics in 1985, when he went into semiretirement. In his later years, he was still associated with the university as a Regent distinguished professor. While at the university, the physicist continued his research in association with a variety of space probes. For the 1977 Galileo mission, for example, Van Allen developed a way to keep cameras still using a "dual-spin concept" and researched the belts around Jupiter. He was also a part of the Pioneer 10 team, exploring Saturn, and he continued to study the Earth's outer atmosphere all the way to the end of what is known as the heliopause. Having appeared twice on the cover of Time magazine in 1959 and 1961, Van Allen would garner many honors, ranging from the 1958 Space Flight Award to the more recent Gerard P. Kuiper prize in 1994 and the 2006 National Air and Space Museum trophy. Interestingly, Van Allen was not in favor of manned space flights and exploration. He felt that robotic probes were more ef- ficient and less expensive, while having the added benefit of not putting human life at risk. Van Allen, who never considered himself an astronomer so much as a physicist, was the author of several titles, including Origins of Magnetospheric Physics (1983) and The Modern Saga of Planetary Exploration (1992).



Notable Scientists from 1900 to the Present, 2nd edition, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 2001.

Science and Its Times: Understanding the Social Significance of Scientific Discovery, Volume 7: 1950-Present, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 2000.

World of Physics, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 2001.


Chicago Tribune, August 10, 2006, section 3, p. 7.

Los Angeles Times, August 10, 2006, p. B10.

New York Times, August 10, 2006, p. C14.

Times (London, England), August 10, 2006, p. 62.

Washington Post, August 10, 2006, p. B6.

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