On Amateur Science

University of Alberta observatory domes


"Thank you so much for visiting our class on Friday! The kids loved it...they thought it was pretty cool to meet a "real" Astronomer! Thanks again, Janine"

Updated February 14, 2004

The following words by amateur radio astronomer Jim Sky describe the spirit of amateur scientists and their approach to discovery.

For me, one of amateur science's real attractions is the challenge it poses in terms of developing experimental (or observational) equipment with limited resources.  I think, that if I had an unlimited budget for buying equipment and hiring a support staff, I might get quite bored in short order.  It was the same for me when I got my amateur radio license back in 1972. (I still have my first 6V6 40m/80m transmitter with the toilet paper tube tank coil.)  As soon as I was able to afford real commercial equipment, my interest began to wane.  That was sort of a good thing as it may have partially been responsible for turning my attention to radio astronomy, which in the mid 80's meant building everything from scratch.

In recent years my involvement in the Jove Project has given me new perspectives on what might be done with limited funding.  One source of inspiration has been Tom Ashcraft.  I don't think Tom would mind me saying that he is not an equipment tinkerer.  His forte seems to be the art of keen observation.  Armed with some shortwave equipment, simple dipole antennas, and an extraordinarily rf quiet location, Tom has become the most respected observer of HF solar and Jupiter emissions in amateur circles.  (And believe me, there are professional observers who take note when Tom makes an observation too.)  Tom has done this, I think, by his extraordinary diligence in using the equipment he has at hand to listen closely and consistently to what nature is "saying."

I submit that there is much to be "discovered" using simple receivers and antennas. Most discoveries may be of the "personal" type, but I suspect there may be many secrets that the pros have yet to bring to light.  New discoveries seem to come about when (in no particular order):

1. An observer "sees" a phenomena AND takes note of its significance.

2. A new technology allows the presence of a phenomena to be seen.

3. An old technology is applied in a new way.

4. A question is asked that no one ever thought to ask, resulting in a new research path.

Note that three of these items do not include some fancy new apparatus as a requirement. Unfortuneately, the book "Serendipitous Discoveries in Radio Astronomy", produced by the NRAO is out of print.  If you can find a used copy, buy it.  It is full of stories about how discoveries were made in radio astronomy. What I find inspiring about the book is that often the discoveries depended more heavily upon the processing in the "head" of the researcher than the magnificence of the observational equipment. Many of these researchers would have given their right arm to have the kind of technology we see every day thrown away in the local dumpster.  As Grote Reber said, "If everyone is looking up, look down."

So my advice to a person new to amateur radio astronomy is:

1. Start out with simple goals, and simple equipment.

2. Learn everything you can about using your equipment.

3. Begin observing regularly and "listening" closely to nature's voice.

4. Hone your observational skills.

5. Work on ways to quantify and record your observations.

6. Share your work with others and benefit from their insights.

There is plenty to do without re-creating the GBT (Green Bank Radio Telescope) in your back yard.  Invest your mind more than your money and I think you will see the return interest rate is much greater.


Jim Sky  KH6SKY

From an email posted to the Society of Amateur Radio Astronomers list server, April 6, 2002. Used with permission.


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