The Mark of One Man
Dr. Van Allen once told a writer that he had placed “a moist fingerprint” on a gold-plated instrument package carried aboard the Pioneer 10 spacecraft just prior to its 1972 launch to explore Jupiter, Saturn and the outer reaches of the solar system. It comforted and amused him, he said, to think that he had left his mark on an object – currently more than 8 billion miles from Earth – that will be traveling among the stars long after he had died.
He also left his mark in far more scientifically significant ways, chiefly in the 1958 discovery of the radiation belts that bear his name, the 1973 first-ever survey of Jupiter's radiation belts using the Pioneer 10 spacecraft, and the 1979 discovery and survey of Saturn's radiation belts using Pioneer 11.
But his work didn't end there. Right through his 1985 retirement from active teaching and into 2006, he continued to be a presence in the University of Iowa Department of Physics and Astronomy, counseling students and colleagues and publishing research papers based upon cosmic ray data from Pioneer 10, which continued to send back data until 2003.
For his work, he received many awards, including membership in the National Academy of Sciences; the National Medal of Science, the nation's highest honor for scientific achievement and awarded by President Ronald Reagan; and the Crafoord Prize, presented by the King of Sweden, for scientific research in fields not recognized by the Nobel Prize.
Dr. Van Allen left his mark on students, too, including 35 doctoral students and 48 master's degree students, some of whom went on to study magnetospheric physics, a field of study he created. Also important to him were his many undergraduate students, many of whom did not major in the sciences. “I taught General Astronomy for 17 years, and it was my favorite course,” he once said.
Perhaps of equal importance to the mark he made on the world were the marks made on him by students, friends and family. For without the love and support of his wife, Abigail, and children Cynthia, Margot, Sarah, Tom and Peter, it would not have been possible – or half as much fun – for Dr. Van Allen to leave behind even a single fingerprint.
Obituaries and Articles
- University of Iowa News Services News Release, Aug. 9 and 30, 2006
- James A. Van Allen (1914-2006), by Donald A. Gurnett, Nature, 443, p. 158, September 14, 2006.
- In Memoriam: James A. Van Allen (1914-2006), by Donald A. Gurnett, Iowa Academy of Science, The New Bulletin, Vol. 2, No. 4, p. 5, Fall 2006.
- James Alfred Van Allen, by Frank B. McDonald, Michelle R. Thomsen, and Donald A. Gurnett, Physics Today, Vol. 59, No.12, p. 77-78, December 2006.
- The Life and Accomplishments of James A. Van Allen, by Donald A. Gurnett and Stamatios M. Krimigis, IEEE Trans. on Plasma Science, 35, No. 4, Part 1, doi:10.1109/TPS.2007.902089, pp. 745-747, August 2007.
- James Alfred Van Allen (1914-2006), American Astronomical Society, August 2006.
- James A. Van Allen, Discoverer of Earth-Circling Radiation Belts, New York Times, August 10, 2006.
- James A. Van Allen; Discovered Earth's Radiation Belts, Washington Post, August 10, 2006.
- James Van Allen, Universe Today, August 9, 2006.
- Pioneering Astrophysicist James Van Allen Dies, NASA.com