Space scientist James Van Allen (1914–2006)


Discoverer of the Van Allen radiation belts and one of the TIME magazine men of the year for 1960 James Van Allen died yesterday. (What a coincidence. What are the odds that the person to discover the Van Allen radiation belts would also be named Van Allen?)

I never met the man, but I met his granddaughter. She has an amazing facility with languages and became fluent in Japanese after spending a year as an exchange student. Her Japanese was so good that at one point, a girl came up to her and asked, "How do you get your skin so pale?", mistaking her for a native who had undergone some sort of bleaching process to get milky white skin.

That's when you know you've made it. When native speakers mistake you for one of their own who merely has had a lot of cosmetic surgery.

(Whenever we tell this story, she tries to downplay the experience. "Yeah, well, the girl didn't have her glasses on." Like that changes the story in any significant way. Now, if the girl were deaf...)

Comments (16)
  1. richard says:

    That sort of facility with language is amazing, especially for someone who learns it at an older age.

    I wonder if she has a near photographic memory for things audio?

    My daughter (7) is fluent in 3 languages (without accent) and has a near photographic memory for conversation and audio (even if it is not in a language she knows – she happily sings songs in languages she doesn’t know)

  2. Damit says:

    If I’m not wrong, the Van Allen radiation belts didn’t have a name before he discovered them. So it’s not a coincidence that they’re named the same. :P

  3. ToddM says:

    That wooshing sound you hear is the sound of the joke flying over your head.

  4. Mike Dunn says:

    Tomorrow on Amazing Coincidences: Lou Gehrig comes down with Lou Gehrig’s disease.

  5. Name required says:

    <i>I wonder if she has a near photographic memory for things audio? </i>

    Shouldn’t it be "phonographic"? ;)

  6. BigStew says:

    Well, I’ve just returned from a fortnights holiday in France.

    Over there I witnessed five year olds speaking fluent French, whereas my son only knows a few words in their native language…

  7. ::wendy:: says:

    That is so sad!  That a person from one cultureal group would assume that another would put effort into changing skin-tones to look like a different ethnic group….  

  8. Norman Diamond says:

    That’s when you know you’ve made it. When

    > native speakers mistake you for one of their

    > own who merely has had a lot of cosmetic

    > surgery.

    Not always.  A few months ago there were several newspaper reports about someone who was arrested for not carrying her passport or alien registration.  Japanese don’t have to carry or have passports and can’t carry or obtain alien registration, but that doesn’t matter.  She spoke impeccable Japanese too, but that didn’t matter either.  I forgot now if she spent the night in jail or finally got out before midnight, after some maverick in the police department finally obtained information that the arrestee was Japanese.

    Of course other kinds of events aren’t newsworthy because they’re so common.  Like a Peruvian whose grandparents were Chinese but who speaks about 5 words of Chinese and 0 words of Japanese, but Japanese people can’t stop speaking Japanese to her no matter how many times they’ve been told that she’s a Peruvian whose grandparents were Chinese and doesn’t understand a word of Japanese.

    There are also a few Caucasians who are Japanese due to being born to Japanese parents (the parents having been naturalized) and it doesn’t matter that they speak Japanese impeccably and are Japanese, they get treated as foreigners.  Of course Japanese people with darker skin for similar reasons would have it worse, but they don’t seem to be numerous enough to hear about yet.

    > became fluent in Japanese after spending a

    > year as an exchange student

    The daughter of some friends also became fluent in Japanese in a year, but she’s about 4 years old.

    When she gets old enough no one will ask how she got her skin so dark, she’ll just get stopped twice a day and forced to show her alien registration and bicycle registration.

  9. Lauren Smith says:

    Norman, funny you mentioned that.

    I was stopped by the police and asked for my passport. Of course I have a visa and alien registration card, so I told the officer that I don’t make it a practice to carry my passport everywhere I go. Then I glared at him a little and asked if I could leave. Sure, no problem, thanks for your time.

    I can’t say that I recommend walking from Toyocho to Gyotoku at 2 in the morning, though.

  10. Steve Kemp says:

    @Mike:  Diseases these days tend to be named after the Doctor who diagnoses/identifies the condition, rather than after the unfortunate patient.

  11. gid says:

    Well, I knew I blew it when someone said: "Your mandarin is so horrible, you must have learned it from Raymond Chen !".

  12. Jonathan says:

    Wouldn’t a Japanese girl be different from a caucasian(SP?) in more way than just skin color – eye shape, etc?

  13. Dean Harding says:

    ::wendy::

    Pale skin is considered more attrative to the Japanese eye. It’s got nothing to do with trying to look like any other ethnic group.

  14. George Jansen says:

    The NY Times ran an obituary of Van Allen written by Walter Sullivan, who died in 1996; not everyone gets to outlive his obituarist.

  15. Norman Diamond says:

    Saturday, August 12, 2006 3:43 AM by Jonathan

    > Wouldn’t a Japanese girl be different from a

    > caucasian(SP?) in more way than just skin

    > color – eye shape, etc?

    Around 99.9% are.  In other words, not 100%.

    But I think the one who was arrested for not having a sufficiently Korean-looking face wasn’t a descendant of Europeans.  Her parents and enough ancestors going back far enough looked like Chinese so they didn’t get arrested for not carrying alien registration cards.  What it was about her appearance that made the arresting officer and some number of other officers sure that she wasn’t Japanese, maybe only the officers involved know, or maybe it’s a state secret by now.

    As for those who do have a Caucasian parent, there has even been a case of a racist proprietor determining that one sibling would be allowed into his establishment and one sibling wouldn’t be, on account of their appearance.  Actually I’m sure there’s been more than one case like this, but only one that became famous recently.

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