on 1 October 2011
This is a fascinating area of work, and for the amateur you detect fairly quickly that the author of this book has got not just the theory but a wealth of practical professional knowledge that will enable modest set ups access radio events in the solar system. When I say modest I mean compared to Jodrell bank. For anything outside the solar system you are talking on the scale of 10 meter dishes.
The Radio Sky is not easy reading! You will need to be some way into astronomy and physics and be prepared for a step change in your grasp of radio electronics. A lot of the theory for the latter is provided, but it is of course very mathematical. And there is a lot more maths in this book than the product description would lead you to suppose! They say the book is divided into 2 parts, and this is where my difficulties began, part 1 the astronomy of the radio sky and part 2 the technology to access it. But in practice these objectives are distributed across the book in ways I found difficult to follow. There are so many occasions where concepts are developed using 5 or 6 key terms that are explained in subsequent chapters.
This book requires some navigation! The journey will be worth it as the author's hands on knowledge leads you into, what feels like, an apprenticeship in radio for radio astronomy. This is both the book's strength and weakness. To be an apprentice you really need to be there with the 'master' watching what he's doing. He explains why bits of kit are useful for radio astronomy and how to set them up, but he bemoans the fact they are no longer available and that you will need to acquire other available bits of kit and modify them - this is where your firm grip of radio and TV electronics will become helpful. Very experienced amateur astronomers will know about 'modded' optical accessories etc., but for radio work it is a step change! And, like most 'masters' who prefer to work with apprentices hands on, the explicitness of the written explanations is very uneven. The best writing in the book occurs when the author is in free flow showing you how bits of kit work and how they can be adapted. Some of the theory is very terse. The author doesn't like kit 'construction by numbers' and prefers schematics with construction plans that don't easily relate. I'm sure there are better ways to illustrate set ups and work back to schematics.
The good news is that the first solar radio project is relatively straightforward - I can do this! You quickly discover that radio astronomy (like the more serious optical counterpart) requires different telescopes, receivers. amplifiers etc. for different frequency bands. The first project (that I can do) isn't technically radio astronomy! It's a very low frequency solar flare monitor which essentially is about detecting changes due to earth atmospherics than the from the sun directly. The subsequent projects are logarithmic step changes in difficulty from this!
If I had designed the book to aim it at someone like me (a keen backyard amateur with a few degrees and some experience of junior kit building) I would have set it out a bit differently. I think this book is really going to appeal most to very serious, somewhat experienced, radio astronomers who are quite a bit further down the line than me - for them I'm sure this book will be the answer to prayers, the author is a uniquely placed professional in this line of work as both a technician and theoretician. I just wish there were a load of DVDs with this book!
on 16 December 2013
The radio sky is a huge subject, and I think Jeff did a great job in trying to pull multiple strands of theory and practice together. It would certainly help you to have some astronomy and amateur radio background. I had some knowledge of astronomy, but almost no knowledge of radio. Following the book and trying to get some (any!) signal from the sky, I found that electronics (and interference) was the biggest issue for me, but sometimes you just have to go out and buy a few suitable ready-made components.
Once you've got some equipment (I found FUNcube dongle was the most valuable of my investments, it was the receiver recommended by Radio Astronomy Group for amateur radio-observing), the book will give you a great introduction to the choices of observing targets, and what equipment is best for what target. There were LOTS of little bits of juicy astronomical knowledge as well as straightforward technical facts. The book helps to answer innumerable "how" and "why" questions (such as "why could we not radio-observe the comet ISON?" - its tail needs to be ionised in our atmosphere before it can reflect any radio waves for us to detect... I just hope I got it right!). Overall I found that this book helped to dispel most of the mysteries that initially seemed almost unfathomable to me through intuition alone.
I highly recommend "The Radio Sky..." to anyone who is interested in radio observing. I believe that radio is the future of astronomy.. I also believe that even amateurs can make a contribution. This book has definitely helped me take my first steps... Thank you, Jeff!