James Van Allen, R.I.P.


The discoverer of the Van Allen radiation belts around planet Earth and unintentional contributor to a thousand moon-landing-hoax theories has gone to that highly charged field in the sky.

Walter Sullivan's New York Times obit calls Van Allen "the physicist who made the first major scientific discovery of the early space age," and although or because I don't know enough to render an opinion, I won't challenge that judgment. Even more impressive is that this was a real meat-and-potatoes discovery even for 1958, when Van Allen bundled a Geiger counter—technology more than four decades old at the time—into the Explorer 1 probe. How powerful was James van Allen? The very belts that carry his name emit enough radiation to overwhelm a Geiger counter. Shielding for the donut-shaped belts had to be supplied by Oak Ridge researchers. See van Allen flexing with William H. Pickering and Wernher von Braun. Remember James van Allen as you paddle toward the Aurora Borealis.

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  1. Okay, you just HAVE to add that James Van Allen was a native Iowan, and a long-time professor in the physics department at the University of Iowa.

    Mark Lambert
    in Iowa, of course!

  2. Oh, and the link here takes you to the IMDB site for the early 1960s Irwin Allen (no relation, methinks) movie, VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, starring, Walter Pidgeon, Peter Lorre and Barbara Eden, where “the Van Allen Belts catch on fire.” An unrealistic premise, of course, but a fun movie nonetheless.

  3. Oak Ridge Researchers. I think their best album was Fancy Free. It’s a toe-tapper:

    I’m sitting fancy free, because she was to go
    She’s tired of loving me, she told me so
    I guess she don’t know just how much she means to me
    But along with all my dreams I?m sitting fancy-free

  4. I had the privilege of being a TA for Dr. Van Allen during the early ’80’s. Not only was he brilliant, he was an absolutely nice guy, which was VERY rare in my graduate experience.

    The door to his large but cramped office (floor to 9′ ceiling of books and gadgets everywhere) was always open to students.

  5. In honor of Dr. Van Allen, it’s time for everyone who is playing the H&R Drinking game to have a belt.

  6. the wombat-

    Another physicist here! What do you work on?

  7. And let’s not forget Enrico Sansa, whose middle age spread not only led to his postulating an expanding universe but, more importantly, the discovery of …

    the Sansa Belt! [rimshot]

    Thank you. Thank you. I’m here all week.

  8. Dammit Cavanaugh….thats the best tailored exit line in history!!! ….has gone to that highly charged field in the sky. Brilliant!

  9. There’s a moon in the sky
    It’s called the moon
    And everybody is there, including,
    Saturn, mercury
    Saturn, venus
    Saturn, mars
    Saturn, jupiter
    The van allen belt

  10. The Van Allen belt used to come up every now and then in Super Friends episodes. I forget how, but i think they’d use it to “reverse the polarity” (another Super Friends staple) of something or other, which enabled them to escape some otherwise intractable situation.

  11. It was my privledge to have sat in a couple of astronomy classes Dr. Van Allen taught. He was a great and kind man.

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