The University of Iowa Libraries joins the campus community in remembering James A. Van Allen, whose pioneering research led to the discovery of radiation belts surrounding the earth. Van Allen played a key role in the U.S.-Soviet space race of the 1950’s and 60’s. As a professor of physics at Iowa, he directed several graduate students in the assembly of data-gathering equipment for Explorer I, the U.S.’s first satellite, launched in 1958. His notes and reports about Explorer and other space exploration projects may be found in his papers, located in the UI Libraries Special Collections & University Archives. There is an online guide to the papers available, as well as a description of the collection from the journal Books at Iowa.
Also at the University Libraries are Dr. Van Allen’s 1936 master’s thesis, “A Sensitive Apparatus for Determining Young’s Modulus at Small Tensional Strains,” and 1939 doctoral dissertation, “Absolute Cross-section for the Nuclear Disintegration…” He prepared both while a graduate student at Iowa. His autobiographical essay, “What is a Space Scientist,” appears in the Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 18 (1990).
These photographs of Dr. Van Allen during the 1950’s, along with many others from his career, are in the Frederick Kent Collection of Photographs, faculty series, University Archives. Click on them for a larger image.
Also pictured is the first page from the draft of “Distribution of Trapped Radiation in the Geomagnetic Field (1959)”. It is the first draft of an article he co-authored with two of his students, Sekiko Yoshida and George H. Ludwig, announcing the existence of magnetic radiation belts encircling the earth, based on data gathered from the 1958 launching of Explorer I. Click on the thumbnail for a larger image.
Dr. Van Allen presented a lecture to the National Academy of Sciences at its annual meeting on May 1, 1958, in Washington, DC., at which time he announced the existence of radiation belts encircling the earth. He described how his team had set out to analyze cosmic rays in the earth’s atmosphere, using Iowa-prepared data gathering equipment loaded on the Explorer satellites launched in early 1958. In addition to cosmic ray data, though, they found something else, unexpectedly:
Van Allen lecture excerpt 1 (mp3, 0:59, 1.17 MB)
Later in his lecture he described their findings of magnetic radiation belts encircling the earth:
Van Allen lecture excerpt 2 (mp3, 1:47, 2.09 MB)