A Radio Engineer in the Forest


Dr. George Swenson headshot

How many scientists have you met? Since I am a scientist myself and hang out with other scientists, I've met thousands of them. Many are interesting people, but when I met this one, I knew I was meeting a very special person. Dr. George Swenson has been a pioneer researcher and the developer and designer of some revolutionary equipment now in wide use for research in astronomy and other areas of science. He has a delightful sense of humor and has many entertaining stories to tell of his travels and experiences. Since his specialty is radio, whatever was he doing on BCI, taking measurements in the forest? I had an opportunity to ask him this, as well as other questions, and he was kind enough to explain to me.

1.What type of scientist are you?
Dr. Swenson told me that he is an electrical engineer who specializes in radio engineering. He has a deep interest in acoustics, which is the science of sound. He is particularly interested in how sound travels through air, and how it moves through and around walls. He also studies radio waves and how radio travels through air.

2. Why are you here on BCI?
On BCI, he is investigating how radio moves through the forest and how it is reflected by hills. He is working with a group of scientists who plan to put radio transmitters on many animals on BCI, so that the animals can be easily located and tracked through the forest. They plan to place radio antennas in the forest that will receive signals from the animals and automatically transmit the information to a computer that will map the animals' movements. Dr. Swenson is advising on the building of this system for the biologists. He wants to learn how radio waves are affected by the forest, since they are often deflected by vegetation and hills.

about to get on a bayou boat

3.Where have you worked as a scientist?
Dr. Swenson has worked in (and had many adventures in!) Alaska, New Mexico, Illinois, Virginia, California, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin. He has worked as a professor at several universities, and retired from a position at the University of Illinois in 1988. Although he retired, he has not slowed down, and now works at a U.S. Army laboratory near that university. He continues with the same kind of research and still advises students. The Army is interested in acoustics because the Army makes a lot of noise! Think of the guns, tanks, helicopters-- they all make lots of noise. People in buildings and homes need to be protected from that noise. Dr. Swenson and the other scientists in his laboratory study ways to make noisy things more quiet. He noted to me that, "Everything I do requires a lot of math! He wanted all of the students reading this to know they need to study as much math as they can if they want to keep their career opportunities open.

4.How did you become a scientist?
Dr. Swenson went to college, studied electrical engineering, and got a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering. But then he became a Lieutenant in the Army and was put to work in World War II, designing antennas and radio equipment for listening to enemy messages. It was exciting and demanding-- four years of hard work! To be a really good radio engineer he needed to know more about physics, math, electricity, and mechanics. So, after the War he went to MIT, where he earned a Masters degree and learned to be a teacher. Later, because of this experience, he was hired by the University of Wisconsin where he taught and did research and wrote a textbook while he also worked to earn his doctorate (Ph.D.).

5.What do you like the most about being a scientist?
Dr. Swenson says, I can't help myself! I am curious about the world and everything in it. Science is a satisfying profession-- I like working with students and I like my colleagues.

6.Do you have advice for young people who would like to become scientists?
He said, Go for it! You can't lose! Don't try to take the easy way! You need to master the hard stuff: math, physics, chemistry. It's hard work, and you can have disappointments and anxieties. But the rewards are great and you have nothing to lose.

Dr. Swenson is well-known for helping to design a big radio telescope called the Very Large Array, which is found in New Mexico. The telescope does not have lenses, but instead is made of antennas that receive radio signals from distant stars and galaxies. It was designed to look deep into the outermost reaches of the universe. It is composed of many large antennas set out in patterns, and that are located outdoors in big fields. They are controlled so that they can be pointed in particular directions chosen by astronomers.

Dr. Swenson is also known for a textbook in radio astronomy that he wrote with two other scientists, which is used in universities around the world. He travels far and wide and consults with other experts on the design of radio telescopes in other countries. He also is a pilot and flies himself to Alaska and other parts of the world that are of interest to him.

Thanks, Dr. Swenson, for answering these questions. I look forward to the antenna project that will be built for BCI, and the data to be gathered on the animals.