Thursday, August 10, 2006

James Van Allen

Yesterday Dr. James Van Allen died of heart failure, at the ripe old age of 91. For someone like me who lived through the heady early days of space exploration, just hearing this scientist’s name evokes all sorts of memories. He is most famous for his discovery of the charged-particle belts that now bear his name: the Van Allen Belts. These belts help shield the Earth from the intense radiation that would otherwise strike it, and make low Earth orbits safe for long-term space travel. They were only discovered because Dr. Van Allen insisted on having a couple of the early Explorer satellites carry Geiger counters, so he gets the credit.

But Dr. Van Allen was a very interesting character, reminding me a bit of another scientist hero of mine: Dr. Richard Feynman. Like Dr. Feynman, Dr. Van Allen was completely disinterested in scientific convention, and completely unafraid of controversy. His career is full of incidents illustrating this, including his famous insistence on the Geiger counters (which his colleagues thought were completely useless). Another famous incident is his letter describing a personal sighting of what he believed was a flying saucer from Mars.

Remembering Dr. Van Allen brings back those amazing times in the early-to-mid 1960s: when we really knew very little about space, when our space technology was challenged and risky, when Kennedy announced the objective of going to the Moon, and seven brave men won the competition to be America’s first astronauts. These things were happening just as my own interest in science and technology was awakening; the romance and adventures of the space program (both manned and unmanned) provided much inspiration for me. And Dr. Van Allen was a prominent player in those times. He was one of the era’s “rock star” scientists, like Dr. Von Braun and Dr. Teller — like them, appearing on a cover of Time magazine, and well-known to an entire generation.

RIP, Dr. Van Allen…

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