James Van Allen

Physicist

Born: 7 September 1914
Died: 9 August 2006
Birthplace: Mount Pleasant, Iowa
Best known as: Cosmic ray expert who found the Van Allen radiation belts
James Van Allen was an American physicist who directed early exploration of the outer reaches of earth's atmosphere. Because of the discoveries he made in the magnetosphere, radiation fields that surround the earth are commonly referred to as the Van Allen belts. A graduate of Wesleyan College (1935), he studied physics and earned his doctorate at State University of Iowa, where he spent most of his career as a popular teacher and world-famous researcher (1951-85). During World War II he helped develop the proximity fuse for anti-aircraft missiles (detonation by radio waves meant direct hits were no longer necessary). That work with miniaturization and electronics served him well when he went to work with Wernher von Braun on V2 rockets after the war. Van Allen was instrumental in organizing the International Geophysical Year (1957-58), an international project to study space, and was among the directors of Explorer satellites launched in the late '50s and early '60s. Van Allen's detectors aboard Explorer I (1958) found the Van Allen "belts" -- zones of highly-charged particles trapped by the earth's magnetic field.

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