Beyond the clouds.

It seems only fitting that for this month's date tie-in I look to the skies, well beyond the clouds. It was on this day, in 1958, that the first United States satellite was launched into space. And thus it's on this day that James Van Allen is credited with discovering the Van Allen Radiation Belt.

I'm far from being an authority on the matter, but it seems that the geomagnetic field that surrounds the earth isn't uniformly consistent. On the one hand the solar wind compresses it, while on the other side of the earth it become elongated. This creates a cavity that traps charged particles ... and creates the belt. The existence of a radiation belt had been predicted, but only with the launching of Explorer I was it confirmed.

I'm not really sure just what the significance of this radiation belt is, but in popular culture it's gained at least a bit of status around the question of the chances of James Van Allen discovering a radiation belt that bears his name. This is, of course, a variation on the perhaps better known question of Lou Gehrig contracting Lou Gehrig's disease. In the apparently quite forgettable 1997 film Father's Day two characters have the following "conversation":

  - Lou Gehrig. Everybody knows Lou Gehrig. The baseball player. He died of Lou Gehrig's Disease.
  - Wow, what are the odds on that?
If there's an original to this, however, it must be from before then. I know I jotted down something similar that I read in a magazine at least as early as the 1980s, perhaps this quote from Bill Muse:
Did you know that Lou Gehrig died from Lou Gehrig's Disease? What are the odds of that?
James Van Allen holds an additional, rather unusual claim to fame. Van Allen died in 2006, and his obituary in the New York Times was written by the longtime science writer/editor of the Times, Walter Sullivan - who died a full decade earlier. As the Knight Science Journalism Tracker blog out of MIT, in its own obituary of Van Allen reminds us:
Notably, the New York Times, which like many newspapers prepares obits in advance, update the details but ran its story on Van Allenís passing under the byline of its late and probably still most famous science writer, Walter Sullivan.
There is apparently no connection between the Van Allen Radiation Belt and time travel.



Go to: Every cloud must have its golden backing.