The Scientific Method in Ham Radio
Volker Grassmann, DF5AI
July 27, 2003
In the VHFDX email forum, radio amateurs speculate about the possibility of terrestrial radio propagation across the Atlantic Ocean in 144 MHz, see, e.g., , , , . Ian, G3SEK, emphasizes the need for 'hard science in this area' to prevent radio amateurs from falling back in 'those hand-waving, amateurish Dark Ages' in which the 'most basic rules of physics' were broken by 'pseudo-science' . I asked myself, where do we meet the scientific method in ham radio and what are the complications?
In our dx reports, for example, all data and information hardly fulfills the requirements of scientific information. Almost all quantities we may read on our instruments (e.g. antenna heading and fieldstrength) as well as essential system parameters (e.g. antenna gain, beamwidth, total system sensitivity) must be considered rough estimates rather than measurements because calibrated data is generally not available in ham radio. This is the reason, by the way, I consider date, time, frequency and geographical positions the only relevant information in dx reports. Because amateur radio stations are designed for communication purposes rather than scientific measurements, there is however no reason to complain about the lack of scientific data. On the other hand, considering reliable and reproducable measurements an essential element in scientific methodology, science and ham radio seem to have little in common.
Analysing band openings and dx events, the lack of reliable data reduces almost all our efforts in propagation studies to considerations based on plausibility. Because radiowaves never tell us the way they have travelled to us, a certain amount of uncertainty therefore remains even with the most plausible interpretation. Nevertheless, we need to achieve best consistency and best plausibility in all interpretations. Ham radio is therefore forced to apply scientific methods and rules very strictly. This is the way, how I understand Ian's demand for hard science in this area.
On the other hand, there exists a major obstacle between science and ham radio, i.e. ham terminology. Using terms such as "Sporadic E", "Aurora", "field-aligned irregularities" and many others, we actually do not refer to geophysical phenomena but certain types of dx observations. Receiving heavily distorted signals from the north, we call it "Aurora" even if we do not know the actual degree of geomagnetic disturbances. Thus, we provide geophysical explanations by using geophysical terms but we actually wish to express something different, i.e. the availability of a particular type of dx communication. The complication becomes obvious, for example, when declaring transatlantic 50 MHz propagation, for example, "E3" or "F2" propagation. Scientists and newcomers in ham radio both ask: how do they know? Therefore, I really love the term "TEP (transequatorial propagation)" because it does not provide any explanation but it describes what we actually do in ham radio, i.e. observing special types of phenomena.
Yes, I fully agree to Ian (actually, I am convinced that the scientific method is worth to be applied in many areas outside of the scientific ivory tower but this is a philosophical question, perhaps) but I see complications in practice. We may not expect, for example, that a teenaged newcomer fulfills scientific requirements if he starts thinking about dx opportunities. Does this mean, he or she is not welcomed to share our ideas and thoughts on radiowave propagation? The opposite is true, i.e. we definitely want to attract the young people's interest in ham radio and we wish to encourage all newcomers conducting their own dx experiments. In my view, knowledge in the area of radiowave propagation is initially less important but keeping observations, assumptions and conclusions strictly separated, is - doing so, knowledge and experience will follow and will improve understanding of dx propagation. I mention this and I mention it this way, because education and training is another important aspect of ham radio. Thus, applying scientific methodology in amateur radio propagation studies needs to be explained and needs to be communicated, permanently. Leaving behind the young generation is not acceptable, neither in science nor in ham radio. In Germany, we did terribly wrong, I fear: here, you may find even ham radio officials left behind in a world of ham radio which is gone many decades ago.
A final word to fellow hams considering the scientific method a mystery from an unknown planet: keep going, i.e continue your dx experiments and continue raising questions and ideas. Here is my advice: if you decide to conduct an unusual dx test, just do it and please communicate your results in the ham community because we all wish to learn from your experience. If you do the same thing by providing funny ideas in advance, for example, crossing the big pond by using tropospheric ducting of meteorscatter echos backscattered by field-aligned irregularities, you will definitely find an expert in ham radio blaming your ignorance of this and that. All what I want to say is: there is no need to provide explanations for everything all the time. Radio amateurs, for example, discovered shortwave transatlantic communication against the experts' expectations in those days. Someone (I unfortunately forgot who it was) explained the difference between non-scientists and scientists as follows: non-scientists need to have explanations, always, even if it's nonsense; scientists, on the other hand, can accept the fact that an explanation is not yet available. From this perspective, many radio amateurs may be considered real scientists because we all share this feeling of not understanding all the details, aspects and characteristics of VHF long distance communication.
Yes, I love science very much indeed and I am deeply convinced that science and mathematics is the most important cultural achievement of human mankind. However, I am also convinced that tracking down funny ideas and performing strange dx experiments is an essential element of amateur radio. In perhaps 99.99 percent of all cases, mother nature does not tolerate our ignorance by destroying all our hopes without mercy - in 0.01 percent of the cases, mother nature however smiles and discloses one of her secrets. To argue more seriously: amateur radio very often operates in areas which appear abandoned from scientific, commercial and military experts. We may therefore experience radio propagation phenomena unknown to many professional radio engineers and scientists. Because of the high geographical density of amateur radio stations (in Germany, for example, the density is one station per 10 square-kilometers), the observation network of radio amateurs covers large geographical areas more or less permanently exceeding the range, for example, of ionospheric radar systems and point-to-point radio circuits considerably. Compared to other types of radio servcies, we therefore enjoy a statistical advantage in observing unusual and even unknown phenomena. This is the card, amateur radio has to play ...