A scientist in winter
THE THREE-RING binders James Van Allen kept close at hand were labeled, in a shaky script, “Problems I,” “Problems II,” “Problems III,” etc. He pushed his desk chair over to the shelf, grabbed the most recent -- it may have been “Problems V” -- and opened it to show me pages of questions he had jotted down on subjects as diverse as space exploration (his profession) and Daimler Chrysler’s claims about the power of a certain Jeep.
“The torque they were advertising could only be achieved at about 4,700 rpm,” he explained. “I wanted to see if that was reasonable.” The answer required some experiments on a nearby highway, which Van Allen conducted himself. At just over 60 mph, he affirmed the advertiser’s claim and discovered that a driver wouldn’t have to risk a ticket to get peak performance. Another problem solved.
Van Allen, who died Wednesday at 91, came of age as World War II ushered in the era of big science. A key figure in the development of wartime technologies, when he returned to civilian life he pursued his fascination with auroras at the University of Iowa. With an unwieldy contraption he called a rockoon (part weather balloon, part rocket), he was among the first to measure conditions in the Earth’s upper atmosphere. In 1958, his instruments, orbiting in the first American satellites, detected the layers of radiation that stood between Earth and outer space and came to be called the Van Allen Belts. On a practical level, this discovery led to new understandings of the hazards of space travel and the behavior of radio waves.
We met in the last year of his life, to talk about the discovery of the radiation belts. He answered a stream of questions about Cold War science and his rocket days. Then he steered the discussion to topics he found more engaging: the common traits of scientists and the challenge of finding purpose in old age. And he drew answers from his own experience.
When he was a boy in rural Iowa, his parents made it clear that they expected him to make something of himself. Books and magazines such as the Atlantic Monthly and National Geographic filled him with a broad sense of the world’s possibilities. Stories of polar explorers gave him heroes to admire, and a mentor at the small college where Van Allen got his undergraduate degree helped open the world of physics to him. All these influences, added to certain basic Midwestern values, encouraged him to be imaginative, curious, persevering and patient.
“A lot of people were brighter and more perceptive,” he told me with a smile that made his entire face wrinkle. “But I had that curiosity, and I could be a bulldog when I was looking for answers.”
Van Allen officially retired at age 70 in 1985, but he kept his campus office, and he held to the habit of going to work every day. He still met with classes and made himself available to students. He also turned his attention to new kinds of problems. Last winter, he was interested in philosophy, especially the universal quest for purpose in life. In our hours together, we spent as much time on Viktor Frankl’s classic, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” and Eastern religion as we did on the upper atmosphere.
“I’ve been studying the Chinese idea of yin and yang,” he explained. “Centuries ago, they developed this concept of opposing forces which are alternatively dominant. Yang prevails for a while, then overwhelms itself and yields to the yin. It’s fascinating.”
The concept of yin and yang matched some basic truths in physics, said Van Allen, but more important, it made some sense out of the cycles of growth and retreat in every life.
Although he worked in a building that bore his name, with a lobby decorated like a shrine to his achievements, Van Allen was genuinely modest. He welcomed the students who appeared at his door as we talked. Their questions about science were elementary, and he answered them quickly. But each lingered to smile and joke and to learn -- by observing -- how a great scientist ages wisely.
At 91, he wasn’t addressing momentous scientific issues, but that was not the point. He had chosen to hold on to certain essentials -- the work of writing, posing problems and solving them -- but he had also taken on a new purpose. He demonstrated that the habits of mind and the qualities that made him a great scientist continued to serve him to the end. His presence among the students at Iowa was a course in itself.