James A. Van Allen

The University of Iowa

September 7, 1914 - August 9, 2006

Scientific Discipline: Geophysics
Membership Type:
Member (elected 1959)

Space scientist James Van Allen is known for his study of the upper atmosphere, particularly his discovery of the radiation belts surrounding Earth. Van Allen was very influential in the development of space science in the United States, having served on the post-World War II V2-Rocket Panel, which refurbished German V2 missiles for scientific use, and having developed his own balloon-launched rocket program at the University of Iowa. A cosmic ray-detecting device developed by Van Allen and colleagues was launched into space with the satellite Explorer I and discovered the radiation belts in the upper atmosphere, later named the Van Allen belts. The Explorer III satellite mission confirmed the discovery.

In 1935 Van Allen received his bachelor’s degree with high honors from Iowa Wesleyan College in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. During this time, he was guided by Professor Thomas Poulter and worked on research concerning meteors, magnetic surveys of Mount Pleasant, and cosmic rays at ground level. Van Allen received his master’s degree in solid-state physics and his Ph.D. in nuclear physics from the University of Iowa in 1936 and 1939 respectively. Upon graduation, he became a staff physicist for the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution in the District of Columbia. In 1942 Van Allen joined the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) of Johns Hopkins University, where he worked on proximity fuses for the war effort. Later that year he entered the Navy, working as an assistant gunnery officer. Van Allen was a professor and head of the department of physics and astronomy at the University of Iowa from 1951 until he retired in 1985. He served as president of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in 1982. Van Allen received many awards, including the John A. Fleming Award in 1963 and the William Bowie Medal in 1977.

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