JAMES VAN ALLEN by Abigail Foerstner


The First Eight Billion Miles
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A wholly inclusive biography of the famed physicist, often called the father of space science, from Foerstner (Science and News Writing/Northwestern Univ.; Picturing Utopia: Bertha Shambaugh and the Amana Photographers, 2000).

Son of a small-town Iowa lawyer, Van Allen (1914–2006) grew up enthralled by high-tech devices of the 1920s—crystal radios, automotive engines, etc.—and he maintained this interest throughout college. World War II and his Ph.D. arrived simultaneously, and he played a central role in developing the proximity fuse, a critically important wartime invention. Success designing an instrument that could survive being shot from a cannon proved useful when he pioneered upper-atmosphere research firing captured German V2 rockets after the war. He continued working with balloons and smaller rockets, developing skills that vaulted him into headlines after Russia launched Sputnik in 1957. When the United States hastily launched its own satellite four months later, choosing the payload was easy because only Van Allen had an instrument ready to fly, which provided the first picture of the eponymous Van Allen radiation belts surrounding Earth. Over the next 30 years, he served as a principal investigator for two-dozen space missions that mapped the turbulent space of our solar system, with its solar wind, massive solar storms and cosmic rays. His probes—in addition to those of his students—continue to transmit from the edge of our solar system, eight billion miles away. Although a leading scientific figure, Van Allen’s rather staid personal life creates difficulties for the biographer. He was popular with colleagues and students and a good husband, and he made few enemies and avoided politics. Foerstner does a fine job explaining Van Allen’s work, but readers outside academia may wish for less of her exhaustive research, which includes biographies of his and his wife’s ancestors, domestic details (including what the bride wore at his wedding) and details of innumerable committees on which he served.

A sturdy account of an important if uncontroversial figure in American space research.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-87745-999-6
Page count: 396pp
Publisher: Univ. of Iowa
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 2007