Van Allen, James A.

Letter to astronomer Arthur Beer

  • A letter from rocketry and satellite pioneer James A. Van Allen (1914-2006) to astronomer Arthur Beer, regarding Beer’s request for a contribution to volume III of his series Vistas in Astronomy.

    Beer (1900-1980) was born in Richenberg, Bohemia (later Czechoslovakia), and educated in Austria and Germany. He worked as an astronomer at Breslau University, where he studied binary stars, and at the German Maritime Observatory. He also wrote newspaper columns and was responsible for developing one of the first scientific radio programmes, Aus Natur und Technik. Beer escaped from Germany in 1934, assisted by Einstein, who wrote him a public letter of recommendation, and spent the rest of his life in the UK. He worked at the Cambridge Solar Physics Observatory and at the Kew Observatory, and became a member of the Royal Astronomical Society. Beer’s most significant contribution to science was as the founding editor of Vistas in Astronomy, a “voluminous and thorough survey of present-day astronomy” in two volumes, conceived as a Festschrift celebrating the 70th birthday of astrophysicist Frederick J. M. Stratton, under whom he had served in Cambridge. The resulting volumes were so impressive that it was continued first as an annual book and then a quarterly journal.

    Physicist Van Allen was, from the time of the Second World War, “heavily involved in early American rocket research. When, on April 16, 1945, a V-2 rocket captured from the Germans was first sent aloft from the White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico, it carried Geiger counters provided by Dr. Van Allen. His goal was to record radiation from space before it was altered by passage through the atmosphere. Such ‘cosmic rays’ had been his lifelong interest, and it had earlier been discovered that they were more intense in outer space” (New York Times obituary, August 10, 2006). In January 1958 Van Allen was part of the team that produced the first successful US satellite, which carried a Geiger counter developed by Van Allen. “The radiation detector recorded two belts of charged particles trapped by Earth’s magnetic field. One belt is 400 to 4,000 miles above the surface, and the other is 9,000 to 15,000 miles above the Equator, curving toward the magnetic poles. Further evidence for the encircling radiation was detected with Dr. Van Allen’s instruments carried aloft aboard Explorer 2 and Explorer 3” (NYT). These belts were named the Van Allen belts in his honour. Throughout his life he promoted the use of satellites as more cost-effective and scientifically useful than sending human explorers.

    In this letter Van Allen writes,

    “Dear Dr. Beer: This will acknowledge your gracious invitation to prepare a contribution for Volume 3 of ‘Vistas in Astronomy’ on the earth satellite program. With more leisure, this is an undertaking which I should greatly enjoy. But I am leaving on a seven-week Arctic expedition the latter part of this month; then in latter September I sail on an extended rocket-firing expedition to the Antarctic. hence, I am quite unable to do justice to the proposed undertaking on the time scale suggested. Perhaps a year hence, we may have results of our initial satellite work. indeed, I may suggest that a post-facto article, containing observational results and the interpretation of same, will constitute a much more durable contribution to the literature.”

    Letters by Van Allen are rare on the market. His archive went to the University of Iowa, and we can locate no examples of letters or manuscripts in auction records.

  • Iowa City, June 12th, 1957. Typed letter signed on State University of Iowa letterhead. Pencilled notes by Arthur Beer on the verso. 2 horizontal creases from folding, a little creasing at the top corners, small rust mark to the upper edge. Very good condition.

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