James A. Van Allen
36MS, 39PhD

Achievement 1986

James A. Van Allen, has contributed so significantly to the generation of new knowledge in the field of space physics that he has gained an international renown shared by very few college professors. From those early days when he led his colleagues into Kinnick Stadium to launch balloons, to his days of glory as the discoverer of the Earth's radiation belts in 1958, James Van Allen was a pacesetter in the field of space physics. He continued in that role throughout his long and distinguished career as head of the Department of Physics and Astronomy and has remained active as a researcher and consultant since his retirement from the University of Iowa last June.

Van Allen received his M.S. degree from the UI in 1936 and his PhD in physics three years later. From 1951 until 1985 he headed the physics department, making it one of the most respected programs of its kind anywhere. Students have praised his skill as a teacher, while his research efforts alone have generated millions of dollars of support for space-related study at the University of Iowa.

An interest in cosmic rays put Van Allen at the forefront of scientific expedition to the Central Pacific, Alaska, the Arctic, and Antarctica, in the 1950s. During his career, he has been the principal investigator for scientific investigations on 24 Earth satellites and planetary missions, beginning with the first successful American satellite, Explorer I, and continuing at present with Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11.

Van Allen's most widely known contribution was the 1958 discovery of radiation belts, now called Van Allen belts, encircling the Earth. Time editors lauded his find by putting him on the cover of the magazine. Less heralded were Van Allen's discovery of a new moon of Saturn in 1979, as well as radiation belts around that planet.

In recognition of his immense contribution to U.S. space research, Van Allen has received 13 honorary doctorates, the First Iowa Award in Science, the Elliot Cresson medal of the Franklin Institute, the Commander of the Order du Merite pour la Recherche et L'Invention, the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, London, and the Medal of Exceptional Achievement from NASA. Iowa Governor Terry Branstad proclaimed June 28, 1985 "James A. Van Allen Day" in honor of his excellence in teaching and research.

Van Allen is Carver Professor of Physics, Emeritus at the University of Iowa. His special knowledge of planetary magnetospheres, cosmic rays, solar energetic particles, and solar x-rays, makes his continued work here a very valuable part of the educational experience for students and faculty alike. In addition, Van Allen is a member of the National Academy of Science and participates in the work of its Space Science Board.

Van Allen is a life member of the Alumni Association.