James Van Allen, 1914 – 2006
Yesterday my Uncle James Van Allen died in Iowa City, Iowa at the age of 91. He leaves an amazing legacy as a space scientist, having discovered the Van Allen Radiation Belts through experiments starting with a scientific package on Explorer 1, the first US space flight in 1958. Following this work, he and his group at the University of Iowa continued to have major experiments on robotic space flights, participating in the Voyager, Pioneer, and many other spacecraft. He was also a vocal opponent of human spaceflight, arguing (rightly I think) that putting people into space was a waste of resources when the exploration of space could be done better and more efficiently by machines.
An article about him: Daily Iowan
On a personal note, I visited my family in Iowa a year ago and stayed at my Uncle Jim’s house. At the time, I was working on the Infiniti Interactive Mirror project and could not remember enough trig to work out some of the math needed for the sensor system. Almost as a joke, I drew up a description of the problem and left it on his dining room table before I went out for the day to visit other relatives. When I arrived home that night, he had not only written out the solution, but (ever the teacher), diagramed all of the geometry and math he used to arrive at the final equation, complete with examples. Not only was it kind of amazing to have a world famous astrophysicist help with the project, it was a small way to reconnect with my late Father, who worked with Uncle Jim during WWII on the invention of the proximity fuse at Johns Hopkins University.
I will remember him as a thoughtful and kind man whose passion for science and the pursuit of knowledge will always be an inspiration.