Grounded in Space Science
Curiosity led James Van Allen from tinkering with a Model T to studying the solar system. INTERVIEW
IOWA CITY, IOWA
SPACE scientist James Van Allen keeps leaving things behind with his name on them. First there was the Van Allen radiation belt, a region of high-energy electrons and protons surrounding the earth at heights between 250 and 40,000 miles. Then there was the Van Allen Hall here on the University of Iowa campus, where he taught for decades and where he still maintains his office. ``James Van Allen,'' says a card on his door, ``latitude 41 39' 43.6'' N, longitude 91 31' 55.1'' W'' - in case, he chuckles, anyone wants exact directions for finding him.
Inside that workshop-like room, at a desk surrounded by steel bookcases storing a life's work, he admits that not many people know what to make of such directions. ``We don't navigate by the stars much,'' he says. ``In some sense, there's nothing as impractical as astronomy. You could take away the whole astronomical universe, and most people wouldn't know the difference - except for the sun and maybe the moon.''
Then why has this man - recipient of the National Medal of Science in 1987, principal investigator on 24 Earth satellite and planetary exploration missions, author of a whole constellation of papers stretching back to 1937 - devoted his life to space science?
``I'm trying to assemble pieces of this great jigsaw puzzle of the origin of the solar system,'' he says, ``to see if we can illuminate our own processes on the Earth more fundamentally.''
His interest in science began as a boy in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, where his father, a lawyer, used to read to his sons almost every evening - everything from ``The Book of Knowledge'' to The Atlantic monthly. At school, his favorite subjects were Latin, math, and woodworking. At home, in the company of his brothers, he tinkered - building a Tesla coil that produced foot-long sparks, taking apart the engine and transmission of a Model-T Ford, and assembling crystal radios.
``It still fascinates me to think that here in this room you have radio signals from stations all over the world going through,'' he muses, ``and we can stick up an antenna and receive them.''
As a student at Iowa Wesleyan College in Mount Pleasant, he lived at home, majored in physics, and took the only astronomy course he ever had. After receiving his PhD in physics from what is now the University of Iowa, he joined the Navy's wartime research efforts in developing radio-proximity fuses for anti-aircraft shells.
Following the war, he turned to rocket research and began a series of ``rockoon'' (rocket-balloon combinations) expeditions to measure cosmic rays above the Arctic Ocean.
Looking back, he says, his fascination with science came largely from ``a natural interest in how things work.'' He traces that interest to his roots close to the Iowa farming communities, and worries that, as society changes, such hands-on experience may be waning.
``It seems to me it was more prevalent in a more primitive society, where you're closer to machinery,'' he says. In his university teaching, he says, ``I see this with farm kids all the time. They have a more or less rugged self-reliance.''
That self-reliance, Dr. Van Allen feels, characterized the scientist of his day. ``I was a kind of a one-man army,'' he recalls. ``I could solder circuits together, I could turn out things on the lathe, I could work with rockets and balloons. I'm a kind of a hybrid between an engineer and a physicist and astronomer.'' Today, by virtue of the complexity of scientific undertakings, ``the pattern is much more a team of people'' who are ``backed up by a technical staff that does most of these things.''
He still finds that ``the best students we have equal the best we've ever had, and the best that go any place.'' But he worries that scientific training is not as rigorous as it needs to be. ``The thing that deters kids most is realizing there's an awful lot of work in science. It's not hot-air stuff. You can sort of hot-air your way through sociology, and to some extent history.''
That reduction in rigor occurs, he feels, in elementary and secondary education. ``I see a lot of teachers around the state, and basically they don't have what I'd call a dedication to rigorous thinking and the fact that things are really hard to understand. I don't blame the teachers so much as I do the sociological context of the times. Some people call it television culture - you're supposed to be able to get everything in 30 seconds, a sort of quiz-show attitude.''
Then is a career in science worth all that rigor? ``Scientists really don't make much money,'' he admits. But the compensation comes in other ways. ``The biggest thrill of my life was finding out something that nobody in the world ever knew before. Another gratification is a recognition of the fact that you really do understand a lot of things that go on in the world that most people don't - like planets moving around the sun.''
That understanding, he says, ``dispels superstition, and it gives you a feeling of mastery which you can't have any other way.''
For many people, ``it's kind of a religious feeling - that there is a Creator, or was a Creator, or something that started off this grand system we have, and we're privileged to observe what's going on. I think that feeling runs pretty strongly in lots of people's minds.''
Where will space science go in the next century? Van Allen, an outspoken critic of manned space flights, hopes it moves back to less expensive and more practical uses of commandable unmanned spacecraft.
He sees, however, little promise in mining or manufacturing in space, because of the costs. ``Some people have remarked that if the surface of the moon were covered with diamonds,'' he quips, ``it would hardly be worthwhile bringing them back.''
But he foresees steady advances in the technological applications of space science. He describes the global positioning system - which uses satellites to pinpoint the location of small, portable transmitters within 30 feet anywhere in the world - as ``a fantastic development'' with uses ranging from aircraft navigation to the prevention of car theft.
He also looks forward to the launch next spring of the Hubble space telescope, and to the building of a gamma ray observatory, new X-ray observatories, and a large, space-based radio telescope.
And what about the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence? ``It's nothing I would spend my own time on, even if I were 40 years younger,'' he says. ``I don't foresee any really fantastic breakthroughs,'' he adds, though he admits to having ``very great admiration for people that are doing this.''
Nevertheless, he doesn't downplay the significance of the search. ``The discovery of intelligent life elsewhere would light up the whole thinking world,'' he says, ``and would revolutionize our attitude toward ourselves and our future.''
`INSIDE THE SCIENCES'
Nov. 6 Botanist Peter Raven Nov. 13 Biologist Lee Hood Nov. 20 Physicist Shirley Jackson Nov. 27 Archaeologist Robert Adams Dec. 4 Astronomer Sidney Wolff Dec. 11 Chemist Mark Wrighton Dec. 18 Particle physicist Leon Lederman Dec. 22 Space scientist James Van Allen Dec. 29 (Fri.) Conclusion