Monday, March 03, 2008

It is not just the belts

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biographies, scientists

There is little I could say, or ought to, about a recent biography, James Van Allen: The First Eight Billion Miles by Abigail Foerstner. So much is written already—about him and about the book— since he passed away in August 2006. See the University of Iowa's James A. Van Allen page, and particularly their tribute page (the first link). By the way, I'm puzzled why the Library classifies the book in the 523 section (Specific celestial bodies & phenomena): I suppose for his cosmic ray research, a lifelong passion. It ought to be a BIO.

The book itself is great, but the man is greater. He, more than anyone, "invented" science rocketry. Before that, however, he invented and developed the radio proximity fuze (I found out that "fuse" refers to burnable fuzes; "fuze" is the more general term).

Prior to the development of nuclear weapons, the proximity fuze was the anti-aircraft weapon that was winning the war, in both European and Pacific theaters. My Dad spent a couple years in New Guinea and nearby islands in the 1943-45 period, at times sheltered by the A-A shield these shells provided. Interestingly, Van Allen was there in 1943 with the Navy. Dad, an Army man, doesn't remember meeting any sailors, and we had tens of thousands of troops of all military branches there.

Of course, his name is nearly a household word for the "Van Allen Belts", two concentrated tori of radiation that encircle the Earth. They are composed of energetic particles trapped by the magnetic field; the protons and electrons form distinct belts, segregated by their mass-to-velocity ratio (each has a single charge, but their masses differ by a factor of 1,800).

Dr. Van Allen exemplified the unusual scientist who excels both in hands-on science and as an administrator and executive. Primarily for the latter reason, whether driving the scientific use of captured V-2 rockets in the 1950s or the development and deployment of the Voyager and Pioneer spacecraft in later decades, his skill as a motivator made him the father of space science. The subtitle of the book indicates that, by the time of his death he was continuing to monitor the information being received by three of these spacecraft at distances of eight billion miles (about 86 AU's).

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