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Amateur Radio: Where the Real DX Is
by Paul Gilster, gilster_at_centauri-dreams_dot_org

Back in the 1980s, I was active as a shortwave listener. I was, in radio jargon, an SWL and not a ham, meaning I only listened and didn't transmit. It was great fun to tune in distant stations, and the more challenging the better, which is why the Falkland Islands were always high on the list (I never received their station), and Tristan da Cunha was the ultimate catch (all but impossible here on the US east coast).

It wasn't long before I drifted into utility DXing, listening for non-broadcast stations in remote places, everything from low-frequency aviation beacons to ship-to-shore communications, and I got a kick out of monitoring radiotelephone traffic from places like Little America (Antarctica) back to the States. Finally my interests converged and I started thinking about the ultimate DX - receiving a signal from the stars.

SETI efforts were in their early days then, but I began to wonder whether an amateur receiving rig could hope to snag some kind of extraterrestrial utility beacon. I joined SARA, the Society of Amateur Radio Astronomers, but finally realized that my talents lay in writing, not wiring, and that I didn't have the skills to put together the equipment I needed. It's a pleasure, though, to see that SARA is still active and that the SETI bug has now become more broadly established within the organization.

Now affiliated with the SETI League, SARA will be holding its annual technical conference at a storied place, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, WV. This is where Frank Drake first turned human receivers on specific stars, choosing Epsilon Eridani and Tau Ceti as his targets and more or less inventing the modern discipline of SETI (interesting earlier ideas stretching back considerably farther in time also figure in to SETI's lineage, about which more some other time).

The conference, to be held July 1-3, covers everything from gamma ray burst detection to astro-chemistry with a fine array of speakers you can see here along with abstracts of their talks. The SETI League itself is an attempt to privatize SETI work, reminding us of the contributions of amateurs as well as interested professionals in carrying on the search. And that reminds me of something Freeman Dyson said in a recent interview about the role of amateurs and the scientific hierarchy:

"I like to remind young scientists of examples in the recent past when people without paper qualifications made great contributions. Two of my favorites are: Milton Humason, who drove mules carrying material up the mountain trail to build the Mount Wilson Observatory, and then when the observatory was built got a job as a janitor, and ended up as a staff astronomer second-in-command to Hubble. Bernhardt Schmidt, the inventor of the Schmidt telescope which revolutionized optical astronomy, who worked independently as a lens-grinder and beat the big optical companies at their own game. I tell young people that the new technologies of computing, telecommunication, optical detection and microchemistry actually empower the amateur to do things that only professionals could do before."

Dyson himself is an example, a man who simply became too busy to find time to get the standard degree (he had joined the Cornell faculty in 1951 as a physics professor without a PhD), and whose contributions have kept him similarly engaged ever since. In a 2005 commencement address at the University of Michigan, Dyson said he had "...fought all my life against the PhD system and everything it stands for." While he is hardly an amateur, this remarkable scientist reminds us of the range of technologies that open up research to people wherever they stand in terms of formal credentials.

Sometimes I chuckle at the folly of my own preconceptions. I had thought until about ten years ago that I had missed out on the great era of amateur radio, assuming it to have occurred back in the 1920s and 30s, when people built their own equipment in their basements and television had yet to invade the home. But we're in a golden age right now, in radio and much else, and looking at the resources available with a touch of my keyboard sometimes makes my head spin. It's great to see the continuing efforts of the good people at SARA and the SETI League as they push the state of the art with their own work.

This editorial first appeared on Centauri Dreams, and is used here by the kind permission of the author.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in editorials are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The SETI League, Inc., its Trustees, officers, Advisory Board, members, donors, or commercial sponsors.

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