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Release: May 24, 1999

James A. Van Allen to receive honorary degree from Johns Hopkins

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- James A. Van Allen, Regent Distinguished Professor of Physics at the University of Iowa and a founding father of space exploration, will receive an honorary doctor of humane letters degree from Johns Hopkins University Thursday, May 27 during commencement exercises in Baltimore.

Although he retired from teaching in 1985, Van Allen continues to conduct research using data from scientific instruments of his own design on board Pioneer 10 and earlier spacecraft.

The Johns Hopkins announcement reads, in part:

"Whenever we look at animated weather maps, hear satellite broadcasts or get news of NASA's latest sojourns, we can tip our hats to James Van Allen's lifetime devoted to space science, technology and education. In 1942, he set up work in a converted garage that became the first home of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. His design for a rugged vacuum tube, out of which 80 million devices were produced during World War II, helped turn the tide of battle. During the 1950s, he built a consensus for the International Geophysical Year, stimulating the flowering of artificial satellites, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and a half century of efflorescent space science. The Van Allen radiation belt, named in his honor, is only one example of the mark he has left on the world."

Born in Mount Pleasant, Van Allen, 84, received his bachelor's degree in physics, summa cum laude, from Iowa Wesleyan College in 1935. While an undergraduate at Iowa Wesleyan, he assisted the senior scientist of the second Byrd Expedition to Antarctica in preparing seismic and magnetic equipment for measurements on that continent. He earned his master's and doctorate from the University of Iowa in 1936 and 1939, respectively.

From 1940 through 1942, he helped develop radio proximity fuses for artillery shells to improve anti-aircraft defense of ships. Sponsored by the National Defense Research Council, his work was conducted at the Carnegie Institution of Washington and at the Applied Physics Laboratory of Johns Hopkins University. In November 1942, he was commissioned as a naval officer, and he served 16 months on various ships in the South Pacific Fleet as an ordnance and gunnery specialist.

In 1946, Van Allen returned to the Applied Physics Laboratory where he organized and directed a team to conduct high-altitude experimental work using V2 and Aerobee rockets. In January 1951, Van Allen became professor and head of the University of Iowa department of physics and astronomy, a position he held until he retired from teaching in 1985. In the summer of 1951, he accepted a Guggenheim research fellowship at the Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Van Allen played an important role in planning the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year (IGY) which culminated in the Jan. 31, 1958 launch of Explorer 1 and its scientific payload. Van Allen's instruments included a Geiger counter, which provided information that the Earth is surrounded by regions of intense radiation, later called the Van Allen radiation belt. The discovery marked the birth of the research field of magnetospheric physics, an enterprise that grew to involve more than 1,000 investigators in more than 20 countries.

At the University of Iowa, where researchers have designed and built scientific instruments for some 57 successful U.S. satellites and space probes, his work has resulted in a strong teaching and research program. Van Allen’s research includes the1973 first-ever survey of Jupiter’s radiation belts using the Pioneer 10 spacecraft and the1979 discovery and survey of Saturn’s radiation belts using Pioneer 11.

Van Allen, a member of the National Academy of Sciences since 1959, has received many honors during his illustrious career, including the 1994 Gerard P. Kuiper Prize from the Division of Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society and the 1994 NASA Lifetime Achievement Award on the occasion of his 80th birthday and the American Geophysical Union's 75th anniversary.

In 1987 ceremonies at the White House, he was presented with the National Medal of Science, the nation's highest honor for scientific achievement, by President Ronald Reagan. And in 1989 he received the Crafoord Prize, awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm and presented by the King of Sweden. The Crafoord Prize is the highest award the Academy can bestow for research in a number of scientific fields and, for space exploration, is the equivalent of the Nobel Prize.