Farewell, Professor Van Allen

Professor James Van Allen - June 14, 2005One of the neatest things that I can recall from my early days of becoming a lifelong geek was discovering that something in space was named after a guy who was born and raised not far from my home. I think that’s common for anyone who has some one from their home state do something that makes you proud to say that you are not afraid to say where you are from.

Then in high school, you are taught by physics teachers who studied under the guy. I had an interest in astronomy that died out during these years, but that didn’t make me any less interested in learning more about it. The Van Allen radiation belts? James Van Allen[wiki] was that guy.

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Physicist James A. Van Allen, a leader in space exploration who discovered the radiation belts surrounding the Earth that now bear his name, died Wednesday. He was 91.

The University of Iowa, where he taught for years, announced the death in a statement on its Web site. [globeandmail]

When I worked at WSUI, we used to venture downtown for various live remotes that we would have to setup for, and that would take us to Van Allen Hall, the physics building that is named after him. We’d park the car in one of the official vehicle spots just outside the lecture hall, and there was one, professor emeritus, reserved parking spot that had an older, green, Jeep Cherokee in it. That was Professor Van Allen’s, and it was usually there every single time we dropped by.

Professor James Van Allen - June 14, 2005Even in his 90’s, he was still leading projects and heading into his office nearly every single day. I’m not sure to what capacity, but if you had a some sort of physics research that needed some help in getting a monetary grant from some institution, who else would be better to help sign off on it? He changed a lot about space travel with his discoveries, and the life he led is hardly a dull one.

These pictures are a few snaps that I took when BBC Radio wanted to do an ISDN[wiki] interview with him from our studios in Iowa City on June 14, 2005. He was the kindest man, parking in the lot out front with that classic, green Jeep. His wit was still pretty sharp, and the stories he told were fascinating.

I can’t even recall what the BBC wanted with him, and it doesn’t even matter. I just remember being so excited to shake his hand on that day. It’s not so much about him being a celebrity as it is meeting a great man. A lifetime of researching and discovering new things is an incredible thing in my opinion.

“Certainly one of the most enthralling things about human life is the recognition that we live in what, for practical purposes, is a universe without bounds.”
– James Van Allen (September 7, 1914 – August 9, 2006)


One Reply to “Farewell, Professor Van Allen”

  1. Back in my college days–yes, the mid-80’s–I met Dr Van Allen. To join the engineering fraternity, I had to collect signatures from fraternity members on campus. The signature book had to include my career aspirations which was a wild dream to fly jets in the Air Force and enter the astronauat program. Dr Van Allen sat me down in his office and gave me a hard nose talk regarding the high cost of manned space flight versus the low yield of scientific results. As I’ve aged, paid taxes and watch the space program; I have migrated to his point of view. (BTW, I did fly jets in the USAF–it just went in a way different direction)

    Iowa, Science and the world lost a giant.

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