Home > Antennas, Theory > The Truth about Radio Waves

The Truth about Radio Waves

I’ve always been fascinated with radio waves, and as much as I’ve dealt with them in various ways, I must admit that I don’t fully understand what they are, nor how they are generated, nor received.

Sure, sure… as an electrical engineer, amateur extra, and all-round scientist/experimenter, I’ve known the various theories of electromagnetics (EM) for a long time. Yes, those are all quite nice and tidy. The theories work extremely well for calculating just about everything…  yet, when all is said and done, I still don’t quite understand how radio waves are generated.

This is my coming out of the closet notice: I’m an Electromagnetics Truther.

And, in saying that, I sincerely hope that I’m the first to define that term — that it’s not already associated with crazy lunatics at the fringes of pseudo-science.  That’s not where I’m coming from. This blog is my way of declaring: “Ok, I get the formulas, I use the formulas, they all seem fine… but there seems to be something missing. Have you noticed that too?”

Over the years, in search of “the answer” I’ve studied quite a few books and queried quite a few people, including various Internet community groups.  But the books gloss over the main point, and no one I’ve every asked seems to really know.  Also, I’ve found that the more someone knows, like a university professor, the more they realize that they don’t really know. (And the opposite is also true: the less someone knows, the more they think they do know.)

Ok, so what am I actually questioning here?  I can summarize it fairly well. Stick with me here…

First, let me give you the layman’s summary of EM theory:

  • Electrons have charge – they project an electric field.
  • A charge in motion (velocity) is defined as an electric current.
  • An electric current produces a magnetic field.
  • A change in electric current (acceleration) produces radiation: waves.
  • All waves across the entire spectrum obey the same set of rules.
  • A single “wavelet” is called a photon.
  • A photon travels along a single path (in a direction) through space.
  • Each photon is of a specific energy (quantized) and is related to its wavelength.
  • Photons are bosons – singular indivisible “particles”.  You never get half a photon.

Ok, now take an antenna, where we are told:

  • An electric current is applied to it via a feed line.
  • The current travels down the length of the antenna (at a velocity factor speed.)
  • The current emits electric and magnetic fields (called near fields).
  • The change in current emits radio waves (called far fields).
  • The change in current is of specific frequencies.
  • The radio waves produced are of those same frequencies.
  • The near fields drop off rapidly with distance.
  • The far fields travel “forever” (e.g. across the universe) along specific paths.

In other words: the frequency of the current in the antenna produces bursts of photons that travel out in various directions.

All of that is accepted theory, and it’s all quite wonderful.  However, what’s the actual mechanism of photon generation? We know that the result is quantized (specific energy and wavelength) and travels in specific directions, but how was that produced?

It gets rather problematic because you can ask:

  1. What actually determines the direction of each photon?
  2. When did each photon actually get split off from the electromagnetic (near) field?
  3. Is the photon’s energy really quantized according to the frequency/wavelength rule?

Yes, these may all seem like silly beginner questions… but, as I mentioned earlier, I can tell you that no textbook on EM answers these, not even advanced graduate books on the topic or top level research papers.  Over the years I’ve gathered quite the collection, including many older textbooks too, but unfortunately they all gloss over the specific mechanism or simply state that magic happens.

I don’t like magic happens explanations. They indicate that we don’t really understand what’s happening. In a recent discussion with a EM physics professor at a major university, he commented “I don’t know, but I think back in 1978, there were a couple guys that formulated a model that showed how it worked.”

Well, I’ve got a lot more to say about this topic, but I’m worried I’ve said too much, and you’re yawning right about now. Whenever someone questions well-rooted theories there’s a tendency to think of them as a wacko. What I can say in my defense is simply: ok, if you know, tell me. Show me the book.

Part of the problem is that I’m drilling down into a very specific part of the theory.  There are a great many EM theoreticians in the world, but each is focused on very small slice of the entire puzzle. Most learned about this specific topic while they were in college, and at that time, they just wanted to pass the test. And, of course, the original researchers who formulated the theories are all long gone. For the vast majority of everyone else, they simply don’t care.

So, this has been my quest, to understand this mechanism… for nearly a decade now. I often go to sleep pondering it, wake up pondering it, and think about it each time I gaze up at dipole, yagi, or log-periodic.

In a future article I’ll describe the main problems with the theory in more detail. I just didn’t want to put you asleep by making this pleasant little introduction far too long.

Anyway, so now you know. I’m a EM Truther: seeking the truth about EM emission. And, just perhaps, I’m not alone?

Categories: Antennas, Theory Tags: ,
  1. 2010/10/12 at 10:02 PM

    Well you see… it is magic.

    No really, I understand what you are saying, I have pondered this a lot over the years, and while I am the first to admit I don’t have any special knowledge about it, I have read lots of books and somehow, it always comes down to, like you said, looking at the antenna and thinking to myself, ok, yes, its magic.
    It’s one of those things that we can apply mathematical formulas on what our observations are, and make them fit what we think is going on. My suspicion is that we may find out we are way way wrong in our tidy little theories on how this all works.

    – Cody KC6UNN

    • 2010/10/13 at 2:57 PM

      Good comment. Yes, while the model does all we want it’s quite fine. Then, one day you ask a question, or see a new effect… and there it goes.

  2. LA4RT Jon
    2010/10/13 at 1:33 AM

    The moment you involve photons, you have entered the world of quantum explanations. And that world is weird indeed. Quantum physics doesn’t make sense. It’s just been confirmed by every experiment that has been thrown at it.

    As a start, I recommend “the cartoon guide to physics” by Larry Gonick. If you want to go further, I suspect the Feynman lectures on physics could be helpful. They are still in print, intended for an introductory university course, and he got his Nobel for quantum electrodynamics.

    But all in all, I don’t think there is an intuitive answer to your question. For me, it was helpful to realize that it isn’t wires radiating that need an explanation. The special case is wires not radiating.

    • 2010/10/13 at 3:59 PM

      Hi Jon, and thanks so much for posting your message…

      Yes indeed, photons move us into the world of quantum electrodynamics (QED). Feynman’s various texts provide an excellent start and really help put a more “intuitive feel” on a lot of it. In fact, you might say that studying Feynman’s Lecture series ten years ago got me started down this path. His QED book is also quite good, but perhaps just a little too basic.

      Since back then, I’ve studied a good number of books on both the classical and quantum sides of EM theory — a mix of undergrad, graduate/PhD, several of the classics (like original texts of Dirac) and a sampling of modern research on the edge.

      BTW, I should note: there’s a wonderful EM text online from Rutgers called Electromagnetic Waves and Antennas and is free from http://www.ece.rutgers.edu/~orfanidi/ewa/ — several great chapters in there.

      But, so far the closest explanation I’ve found is in The Electromagnetic Origin Of Quantum Theory And Light by Dale and Craig Grimes, 2005. My expectations were set quite high with this book, and it is indeed a difficult read (post-PhD), but unfortunately they go the opposite direction with it: applying antenna theory to atomic scales. So, like Dirac, all proofs are rooted in the fundamental harmonic oscillator and Hamiltonian… which merges into all subsequent quantum operators without further consideration.

      Sometimes in such math and theory, the forest gets lost for the trees. But because he addresses the theory so well, I’ve contacted Craig Grimes in an attempt to convince him try to extend his theory from atomic (his goal) back to large scale antennas. So far, just a “glad you liked the book” response. Perhaps he realizes it could be problematic to apply HO back to the large scale? One of my favorite examples is impulse response emission. (Yes… I know, Fourier deals with it, but I think there’s more than meets the math going on here.)

      Whew! Very sorry about the long reply. I should note that before I wrote the blog article, I decided not to dive in too deeply and possibly scare off ideas. As Kelly Johnson used to point out, you never know from where or who the correct solution may come!

      Thanks again for posting.

  3. 2010/11/01 at 5:36 PM

    To get a deeper understanding, I feel you have to question some of your listed ‘facts’ from above. And some terms needs to be understood from a different view.

    “An electric current produces a magnetic field.”
    Always remember, that a magnetic field is just an electric field, that is Lorentz transformed. See e.g. “Introduction to Electrodynamics” by David J. Griffiths chapter 12.3 “Relativistic Electrodynamics”. So we just have to understand the electric field and accept Lorentz transformation, then we got the explanation for, what a magnetic field is. Is there really just one field? It seems more simple, if it’s true.

    “A photon travels along a single path (in a direction) through space.”
    Now does it? See Feynman’s “QED” chapter 2 “Photons: Particles of Light”. As I understand it, each photon travel all the possible paths from where it’s emitted to where it’s absorbed. It makes sense, if the quantum world is accepted, as Bohr and others describe it. ‘Particles’ (also photons) are possibility waves (or possibility wave functions), each in some field. There is no photon (understood as a particle). There only is a description of the possibility to observe, what we can call a particle, at some point in space at a given time. By studying e.g. entanglement in quantum physics, we realize, that any particle description doesn’t hold. When a quantum wave function ‘collapse’ and we observe a ‘particle’, we have to give up our undertanding of locality, and we have to question our understanding of space and time. It’s like the quantum wave functions operate outside our universe with it’s ‘well defined’ space and time and light speed as a limit. This, I feel, has threads into cosmology and the understanding of the universe as a whole.

    “The near fields drop off rapidly with distance.”
    Yes, but is there a place at some distance from the antenna, where the field is zero? Or does it just go exponentially to zero, but never become zero? If yes, then we can say, the near field(s) also extract to infinity (or as far as we can go in the universe), just like the far field(s). (But with much lower energy.) I think, the same can be said for e.g. the clouds of electrons in e.g. a table. It quickly become very impossible to find an electron originating from the table, even just a few millimeters from what we understand as the edge of the table, but the possibility is not zero. So we can say, our table extend to the end of the universe, or what?

    I also don’t understand, what photons really are. I sometimes think of a photon as an electron without mass, or an electron as a photon with mass. I also don’t really understand, what an electron is.

    • 2010/11/01 at 6:17 PM

      Hi John, it’s great to hear from you again, and I hope things are going well at Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen. 🙂 How did you find this web page?

      Well, as you probably know, I know all those points already… I agree that the magnetic field is derived from the E field via Lorentz, as a relativistic “virtual field” (my words). But for this specific audience, I decided not to dive into that quite yet. Also, I’m familiar with Feynman’s QED explanations regarding photon least-time paths and probabilities, and the locality issues that it presents.

      I should mention that I’ve developed my own theory now after 10 years. Remember our last discussions several years ago?

      I’d like to think of it as the missing classical EM theory that was never reasonably pursued 100 years ago because early QM development distracted everyone! BTW, I ran into an EM expert at a recent conference who knew of another scientist working along those lines, so I’ll be checking his thesis out soon (next week). My hopes are high.

      Given your background, I can boil the theory down to saying that photons could indeed be composite bosons, not elemental bosons. Interesting, eh?

      Yes, if you look at EM closely enough from an engineer’s perspective and precision, there are some serious timing problems with QM during actual emission. I think it might be indeed easier to suggest a pico-boson model and tweak Planck’s equation to a much greater level of granularity.

      These days, given my interest in ham radio, I’m revisiting antenna theory in detail to weigh it against my new model… a mental exercise that I think makes for a much greater level of classical understanding. In addition, I believe now there are experiments that could prove the theory! Including a very practical solution to the dual slit problem.

      It is so good to hear from you my friend. Please stay in touch. -Carl KB6ZST

  4. 2010/11/02 at 9:12 AM

    I found a link to this page given by Sunanda in the “Blog Chat” group in the AltME REBOL3 world. I finished the first part of my study of astro-physics last winter at the N.B. Institute. It’s hard to have a full-time study and work at the same time, so I take a break from studies now.

    I have some interest for radio from my father, who was involved with amateur radio for many years with call signal OZ3NI.

  5. 2010/11/03 at 4:36 PM

    Hi Carl,

    we’ve talked about the two slit problem in the past – what sort of solution are you postulating?

    • 2010/11/06 at 10:02 AM

      Hi Stu, in a nutshell…

      What if radio-photons (SIC, I write it that way for a reason, to be explained later) were actually composite bosons, not elemental bosons? It sure solves most of the issues that are designated as magic in the nasty transition from CEM (classic) to QED (quantum).

      It was probably suggested long ago, by Hertz or others, but I’ll need to dig for why it was dismissed.

      PS: I seem to recall once reading an ancient discussion claiming a problem with angular dispersion in such a model… but as a composite boson, one might be able to insert some degree of cohesion to make it work. Hey, that’s why they call it a “composite”.

  6. 2011/01/21 at 3:46 AM


    There is an electromagnetic model of the atom, with a mathematical model and universal force law whose 4th derivative is gravity:


    It’s a testable model which appears to correspond to observed phenomena much better than the existing theories.

    PS. The interesting stuff is all in the gaps.

  7. 2012/03/20 at 6:48 AM

    Hi Carl,

    When can we have a look at your radio-photon proposal, and the sub-planck discussion?

    • 2012/03/21 at 7:56 PM

      It’s interesting that you asked about it. I’ve recently decided to publish the proposal on a separate website — mainly to avoid causing a lot of noise to this ham radio related site. I’ll publish a link here for those that want to read about it. So, are you interested in this topic? -Carl

      • 2012/03/22 at 5:20 AM

        For sure, I’ve been wondering how photons work myself, particularly how do they maintain direction?

      • 2014/09/18 at 7:03 AM

        For a limit example, what direction is a photon of wavelength 1 Planck length taking? Since it is the smallest black hole, my guess would be, it’s pointing at itself. But then what happens to it in the next Planck time? Normally a photon is thought not to experience time …

  8. Justin
    2012/04/20 at 10:04 AM

    You’re afraid of being labelled a conspiracy whacko, yet who knows…maybe some of the “lunatics” are on the right path…Is it worth disregarding a point of view so that no-one will think less of you if it means finding an answer?

  9. Steve Keate
    2012/11/11 at 10:49 PM

    This is a fascinating discussion, and not at all what I was expecting when I saw the “EM truther” moniker, I was hoping that you hadn’t developed a case of “electrosensitivity”. 😀

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