I am not all that old, but one of the things that I have observed in the last 10 years is the tendency for computers and the Internet to just stifle true innovation.
You're thinking of the wrong people. Much of the technological progress we see in 2011 relies almost entirely on computer-assisted design. GOOD models of electronic systems work very well, and good models, creatively used, lead to innovation.
You don't have to be a professional engineer to make GOOD models of antennas. You do have to spend time on it, and never stop learning tips on how to do it properly. You have to make
predictions and then you have to check
them (or have other competent people help you check them) and see how the "real world" is different from the prediction. This is good science.
If you look at enough GOOD model/measurement comparisons, you start to see a pattern: outrageous claims based on computer models of antennas are often the result of some really flawed models where the MODELER made a serious mistake. People leave out the feedline on antennas that are prone to common mode problems. People neglect to include the 30 foot mast standing 20 feet away from their 40m vertical. Often, people use the wrong type of model for the earth, breaking some numerical rules that are explicitly stated in the manual
. People don't do self-consistency checks on the model to see if the calculations are running into difficulties or not. Some people base claims on models that show 300% efficiency because the calculation engine is choking on the problem. Again, the way you check this is discussed in the manual, but some people don't bother.
This is not
the fault of the computer tools. It is a classic case of garbage-in, garbage-out. If you don't know how to build good models and check for basic problems with the predictions, you're going to generate nonsense.
If people depend on NEC programs to tell them everything then not a whole lot of innovation will ever occur because I would bet good money that there are antenna designs that could be made that will show totally unexpected and different results from what a NEC model will show.
There are some antennas that don't lend themselves well to NEC simulation. Some examples of this are antennas with lots of close spaced wires, lots of sharp corners near other sharp corners, and antennas with tightly coiled parts that don't lend themselves well to approximation with lumped loads, like some
But the flip side of this is that there are some antennas where free NEC-2 programs can predict the performance more precisely than any of us can actually measure. Tubing and rod beams with elements insulated from the boom installed in the clear are common on the higher HF bands and VHF/UHF. These are predicted very well, even by relatively inexperienced modelers. If you spend some time reading G3TXQ's hexbeam pages, you will see what kind of impressive agreement you can get between models and measurement when an experienced, careful modeler and tester works on it. You'll also see that some of the differences between the models and the real world measurements were the result of assumptions of what could be left out of the model, not
because of a deficiency in the modeling tools hams have available.
Don't let some blowhard with a "quick web search" or a flawed NEC model with too many simplifications make you think that computer tools stifle innovation. For many of us, computer tools lead us in new directions that we NEVER would have had the time or resources to go without them. And even slightly over-simplified models can often result in built antennas that work "good enough" in the real world with no adjustments.
It's been a long time since I put up an antenna I thought was going to be better than what I have already and found that it was worse. It's been a long time since I had to spend more than five or ten minutes tuning an antenna, and even then, I didn't have to cut wire.. .I just had to twiddle a capacitor in a matching network a twentieth of a turn. Not all of these antennas measure exactly the same as the predictions, but they're close enough that there's not much point in tweaking them, and they're close enough that errors in my measurements
, especially on a small lot with limited time, are probably more serious than errors in the models.
If you don't LIKE modeling stuff and you just like to go outside and experiment, that's great! Do it! But don't be excessively skeptical of modeling in general. Be careful and test things, but don't assume that models can't describe reality when done well. They can. And don't assume that measurements
are free of errors and problems. Measurements also have a set of strong assumptions and antenna interactions can be a SERIOUS problem. Measurements can generate nonsense just as much as models can. Maybe more. People will argue that their 80m double bazooka is 18dB better than their 80m dipole, and then you find out they hung up the two antennas about 0.2 wavelength apart and therefore built themselves a wire beam... and really that 18dB is just 10dB because of an "S-unit" assumption. People will sometimes invent things out of thin air when their measurements show one antenna to be surprisingly better than another. They thank their good luck and move on, firmly believing their mistake was a result of a good measurement.
Don't get me wrong: real-world measurements are very important. They're very satisfying and make you feel good about your antenna. They're important checks for modelers. But they're very messy and error-prone, and if you want to ACTUALLY know things to within a few dB it is very difficult and time consuming. If you don't do the difficult and time-consuming part and you don't give enough space between antennas, you're just fooling yourself. Richard Feynman put it well in talking about science in general:
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.
Honestly, the hams I trust most to know how antennas work are people who model things and then make sure that those things get measured, and then think really hard about any differences. Models help tell you what you're doing wrong with your measurements and measurements help tell you what you're doing wrong with your models. So people who do both are constantly "checking their work" in a way that ensures they don't fool themselves.
Other people who FULLY trust anything NEC programs say without even doing the self-consistency checks are fooling themselves. And people who "measure" two tightly coupled antennas, who assume that 6dB per S-unit is a universal truth, and people who do a couple spot check "measurements" and call it a day are also fooling themselves.
at the same time they seem to limit this generation of engineers from thinking outside the Box.
What box do you want people to think outside of? Professional engineers have full three-dimensional finite element software that solves Maxwell's equations for anything. And if you're thinking of thinking outside the box of established electromagnetic theory
you've got a huge body of work to overcome. We have tested the heck out of electromagnetic theory. It is simply an excellent predictor of how electromagnetic fields behave. As with any scientific "fact," classical electromagnetic theory is subject to change as we discover new things. But those new things will come from subtle and exotic experiments that cost millions of dollars. There will be no antenna breakthroughs based on someone discovering new physics
in their backyards. Anyone who says they have "new physics" on their side is either trying to sell you something or really fooling themselves or both.
There are lots of new ways to use the established physics (like metamaterials), but many of those really
need computers to search for good, weird designs in the infinity of possible antenna designs. It is possible to luck on to a good weird design in your backyard. I won't deny that. But then you really have to make sure it's as good as it seems, and that requires more testing than most people do. People are scared of having their "innovation" debunked. But it's not an innovation unless it stands up to serious attempts to show that it's NOT an innovation.