TIL that on the same day James Van Allen announced his discovery of the “Van Allen” radiation belt, he agreed...


TIL that on the same day James Van Allen announced his discovery of the “Van Allen” radiation belt, he agreed to help the US military nuke it to see what happened. It was described by historian James Fleming as the first time “someone discovered something and immediately decided to blow it up”.



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  • Ah yes, the “hold my beer” approach to science.

  • *The plan was to send rockets hundreds of miles up, higher than the Earth’s atmosphere, and then detonate nuclear weapons to see: a) If a bomb’s radiation would make it harder to see what was up there (like incoming Russian missiles!); b) If an explosion would do any damage to objects nearby; c) If the Van Allen belts would move a blast down the bands to an earthly target (Moscow! for example); and — most peculiar — d) if a man-made explosion might “alter” the natural shape of the belts.*

    *The scientific basis for these proposals is not clear. Fleming is trying to figure out if Van Allen had any theoretical reason to suppose the military could use the Van Allen belts to attack a hostile nation. He supposes that at the height of the Cold War, the most pressing argument for a military experiment was, “if we don’t do it, the Russians will.” And, indeed, the Russians did test atomic bombs and hydrogen bombs in space.*

  • Honestly, knowing humans, that cannot be the first time we discovered something and immediately decided to blow it up.

  • What a coincidence that a guy named Van Allen discovered something with exactly the same name.

    Never stop being amazed

  • I swear there’s an old B Grade movie with this as the premise.

  • “It’ll have to go.”
    -Life, the Universe, and Everything

  • >Codenamed: Starfish Prime

    Optimus Prime’s lesser known cousin.

  • “[Van Allen] agreed with the military to get involved with a project to set off atomic bombs in the magnetosphere to see if they could disrupt it.”

    Seriously, I know we learned a lot during this period. But folks really lacked that ethical gene.

  • That is only because we discovered wasp’s nest before dynamite. Had we had nukes then I am sure we would have blown those assholes to hell.

  • Unrelated story.

    In the mid 90s, Duracell made battery testing stations. The idea was that you’d bring in your AA battery, put it in the kiosk-y thing, press the leads to either side, and the kiosk would display a green/yellow/red indicator of how much charge remained in the battery.

    James Van Allen came into the pharmacy in which I worked to test his batteries, but couldn’t for the life of him figure out how the kiosk worked. Grandma Betty, a kindly old Iowa farm wife who worked the front register, patiently helped Dr Van Allen test his batteries, and I nearly wet myself at the sheer Norman Rockwellness of it all.

    Aside, both Dr Van Allen and his wife were lovely people.

  • That’s not a bad ten-word summary of all of human history.

  • That’s not true, balloons were invented before they discovered the Van Allen radiation belt.

  • He agreed to help the US military or he ‘agreed’ to help the US military?

  • I had the opportunity to meet Van Allen at the University of Iowa when I was in 8th grade. A classmate and I had just finished a huge project on the Van Allen Belts, and my teacher, being awesome, arranged a meeting with Van Allen for us.

    I remember being scared to death going into the meeting that I was going to look like an idiot in front of James Van Allen, but he was one of the nicest people I’ve met. I can’t describe how cool it was as an 8th grader to learn more about the radiation belts I had studied all semester directly from the person who discovered them. Easily one of the coolest experiences of my life.

  • James Van Allen is kinda a legend here at University of Iowa. He used to teach here and theres a hall named after him filled with all sources of crazy physics stuff

  • I read this like it was Arrested Development narration.

  • Read that as Van Halen and was properly confused.

  • [Relevant Mr. Show skit.](https://youtu.be/VdT2HqoV198?t=94)

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