The Genius of Joe Taylor
K1JT Keeps on Changing the Face of Ham Radio
BY RICH MOSESON,* W2VU
Joe Taylor, K1JT
We hams are incredibly fortunate to have Joe Taylor, K1JT, as "one of us." For those of you who aren't familiar with Joe, he is an astrophysicist who shared the 1993 Nobel Prize in physics with a former student of his (and former ham) for discovering binary pulsars and using data gleaned from studying those stars to prove Einstein's Law of General Relativity was correct. Joe was also one of the first recipients of the McArthur Award "genius grants" and the first recipient of the Dannie Heineman Prize for Astrophysics, presented jointly by the American Institute of Physics and the American Astronomical Society. In short, Dr. Taylor is a big deal in the world of science. On the ham bands, of course, he's just "Joe, K1JT." But his ham radio software has been changing the face of our hobby for nearly 20 years.
Ham radio is what got Joe interested in science and he told CQ back in 2009 that the two fields of interest have always overlapped to a certain extent, with his ham radio knowledge helping him professionally — especially when new equipment had to be designed and built for studying pulsars — and more recently, with his scientific knowledge helping to transform amateur radio.
"I had always thought," Joe told us in that October 2009 interview, "that it would be fun to apply some of the techniques that we use in radio astronomy for detecting very weak signals (on the ham bands)." In 2001, Joe released the first version of WSJT (Weak Signal Joe Taylor), a suite of software which used sophisticated digital signal processing techniques to turn meteor scatter into an everyday mode and make EME (moonbounce) communication feasible for stations running just 100 watts and a single Yagi aimed at the Moon.
In the decade and a half that has followed, Joe has continued to improve those original modes and add new ones. JT9 and JT65 have become staples on HF as well as VHF, and may become modes of choice on 630 and 2200 meters once those bands open for general use. WSPR (Weak-Signal Propagation Reporter), which was in its earliest days when we visited Joe back in 2009, has informed us of HF band openings that "common wisdom" tells us shouldn't be happening. And now, there's FT8.
While we hams like to believe that we are early adopters of new technologies, our history generally tells a different story. Since the earliest days of the hobby, the average ham has been very slow to adapt. The shift from spark to CW was long and contentious (I remember oldtimers back in the '70s who still longed for the "good ol days" of spark), as was the adoption of phone and then the transition from AM to single sideband on HF, and to FM on VHF. There's been a little more flexibility in the adoption of new digital modes, starting with packet back in the 1990s. But … FT8 has created a phenomenon that I've never seen in my 47 years in this hobby.
FT8 stands for "Franke and Taylor 8-FSK" modulation. Joe had some help on this one from Steven Franke, K9AN. It is part of a Beta release of version 1.8 of WSJT-X. You can read more about it in this month's "VHF Plus" column (p. 74) as well as this month's Contesting column (p. 80), but essentially it has many of the benefits of JT65, such as being able to copy and decode signals that are inaudible to the ear, with much shorter transmit/receive sequences.
The really amazing thing about FT8, though, has little to do with the technology itself. The beta version of WSJT-X 1.8 was released on Tuesday, July 11. The CQ World Wide VHF Contest was the following weekend, on the 15th and 16th. As both K8ZR and K3ZJ report in their respective columns this month, preliminary results suggest that FT8 was the dominant mode for digital contacts in the contest, just four days after its release! That simply has to be some sort of record for speed of widespread adoption of a new mode by hams.
All of us, whether or not we use any of Joe's digital modes, owe K1JT a debt of gratitude for nearly singlehandedly advancing the state of the art in amateur radio, not just once but over and over again. Thank you, Joe! And keep it up!
Out and About
Regular readers of CQ know that we frequently promote taking your ham gear out into the world and operating from locations away from your home shack, as weather and other conditions permit. It's good for your health and it's good for emergency preparedness. We also try to practice what we preach. I've done a bit of ham-hiking, and have long wanted to use my bicycle as a platform for portable hamming. When my 30-year-old handlebar bag finally bit the dust earlier this year, I replaced it with two rear panniers (bikespeak for bags over the rear wheel). On a nice weekend day this summer, I loaded it up with batteries in one bag, antenna wires in the other and two QRP rigs in my backpack. I rode off to a local park, set up the gear, threw an antenna into the trees and got on the air. No luck on phone, but I did manage one excellent CW contact with a station in Maine, typical daytime distance on 40 meters from New Jersey.
Just a few days later, I got an email from author Paul Signorelli, WØRW, titled "+10 dB Pedestrian Mobile Antenna." It contained two photos and some explanation. As Paul related it, he used a commonly available "corner reflector" — also known as a baseball field backstop — to enhance his 17-meter SSB signals and allow him to work GØSBW, also pedestrian mobile, in the UK! Bottom line: There's plenty of radio fun to be had when you get yourself and your station outside and away from home; there's good DX to be worked, along with the opportunity to get creative with getting your signal out, which doubles back to improving your emergency preparedness capabilities.
Paul Signorelli, WØRW, using a baseball backstop as a 17-meter "corner reflector." (KIØPF photo)
And Speaking of EmComm...
We'd like to say thanks and 73 to outgoing Emergency Communications Editor Cory Sickles, WA3UVV, whose final column appears in this issue. Cory had the good fortune to be offered a job as General Manager for Yaesu USA's amateur product line. He accepted, of course, and is stepping down from his role as a CQ columnist in order to prevent even the appearance of a conflict of interest. We are pleased to welcome Walt Palmer, W4ALT, as Cory's successor as EmComm Editor. Walt's inaugural column will appear, appropriately enough, in next month's Emergency Communications Special. Congrats and good luck to Cory! And I look forward to working closely with Walt.
– 73, Rich, W2VU