The Amateur Amateur: I Learned It All by Watching TV

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
February 2021

old Sylvania TV set
TV set very much like what I used to watch

I'll start by saying that I was always inquisitive, but lazy. I liked knowing stuff and I was curious about how things worked. But my preferred method of learning was by osmosis. If it required physical effort on my part, well, too bad. As for reading, the only things I would pick up were comic books. (I must admit, however, that Batman and Superman comics were fairly informative back then.) So naturally, television was the perfect medium for me.

I was always a big television watcher. Even before there was a station in my hometown of Savannah, Georgia I was watching TV. Of course it helped that my father and grandfather owned a radio and TV store. I vividly recall the day when a gang of the store's employees got on the roof of our house and raised a tall mast so that we could pick up signals from the Jacksonville, Florida station. The mast started to topple and everyone scrambled to right it. In my memory it looked startlingly like the Marines raising the American flag over Iwo Jima.

I can't recall how well the reception was, but it was good enough to bring in Howdy Doody.

Television is vastly different today, and I would argue not always for the better. Oh sure, the technology has greatly improved, but it seems to me that the content has gotten a lot worse. Be that as it may, I must admit that television recently answered a mystery that nagged me for years. Here is the background.

We're taught that radio energy travels in waves, right? And the higher the frequency, the shorter the wavelength. Back when this model was first proposed some skeptics asked, “Waves through what?” In other words, through what medium were the waves traveling? The answer given was that there was some as-yet undetected medium which was dubbed “ether”.

After a lot of investigating it was determined that there was no ether. Nevertheless, we still use the wave model when we discuss radio, and you'll still hear people talk about “putting signals into the ether”.

The Great Courses DVD set
Calculus course on DVDs from The Great Courses (known as The Teaching Company back then)

So, what's the explanation? How do radio waves travel through space where there is no air or other medium?

Ah yes, some of you guys and gals who go to work and put on lab coats already know the answer. It's magic, of course!

Ha ha, no, not really. But it may as well be. It's quantum physics. Subatomic particles called photons carry the electromagnetic energy that constitutes your radio waves.

Wait.. huh? Particles? Aren't they waves​?

Yes. They are both. Photons act like particles and like waves.

I learned that while watching TV.

Oh, I did go to college and got a degree, but I've forgotten practically everything that I was taught. Truthfully, I only got into “learning mode” when my wife and I started studying for our first Amateur Radio licenses. And it was she who taught me how to study, something for which I will be eternally grateful. That was a major turning point in my life.

After that momentous event, I began to get interested in learning.

In response to your asking a question, has anyone ever told you, “Look it up”? Well, I started doing that.

For everything.

And I still wanted to know more.

But I had blown my opportunity to learn via formal education. And I had difficulty staying focused while reading books (although lately I have gotten a lot better at it). So, what was left?


Howdy Doody

Sure, ninety-nine percent of what's on the air is drek. But if you look hard enough you can still find interesting, meaningful content. That's where I picked up the wave-and-particle photon tidbit. You may have to filter out a lot of pseudo-science and fringe theories, but the purported science and history channels do occasionally slip in something worthwhile.

There is also the Internet, of course. has a lot of short talks on a great many topics. I often pick one at random and have never been disappointed.

But back to television... so of.

Some years ago I discovered a company called The Great Courses. They produce DVDs of lectures given by experts in a huge variety of fields. Lots of them are what you would expect to find taught on college campuses, but they've branched out into many popular fields as well. If you look through their catalog, chances are you'll find yourself saying, “Oh man, I have to watch that!”

I got hooked when I saw an ad in a magazine for their course on calculus. You see, although I have a degree in mathematics, I never fully understood and have generally forgotten everything I learned about calculus. I bought The Great Courses DVD on calculus and understood everything the professor said. I've gone through about a hundred of their DVD courses since then and am always waiting to see what else they produce. (I'm not alone. Bill Gates says he can't get enough of them either.)

And though it isn't over the air or through the cable, I still get to learn by staring at the TV.

(I still miss Howdy Doody though.)

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