June 1959 Popular Electronics
Table of Contents
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles
published October 1954 - April 1985. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.
I did a little research on
this article about John H. Nelson's work on how the positions of planets affect
magnetic storms on Earth. It looked a little more like astrology than science, but
as it turns out, Nelson's findings gained support in both the astronomical and meteorological
fields. Naturally, the astrology crowd claimed him as part of their goofiness, but
that wasn't Nelson's fault. He published a book in 1974 titled ,"Cosmic
Connections." Yeah, even that sound like an astrology title - poor choice (or
maybe he was trying to fool the contemporary Pharisees in to buying his book).
The book is out of print now, and I could not find any contemporary work that
leverages Nelson's work. My guess is that due to the relatively short time that
observations were made, the sun had not even gone through a full sunspot cycle.
Each sunspot cycle, while occurring on average even eleven years or so, can vary
widely both in intensity and duration from one period to the next. What might have
produce the claimed 85% accuracy for that particular sunspot cycle likely never
provided enough correlation in subsequent cycles to solidify the theory.
Radio Waves, Sunspots,
New techniques aid in predicting radio weather
By Saunder Harris, W1NXL
Several mornings each week, in the center of New York's financial district, the
roof of a small structure located atop the RCA Communications building swings open.
A hovering helicopter could then see Mr. John H. Nelson, a serious-looking man with
thinning hair, assume his place behind a six-inch refracting telescope. Mr. Nelson,
an expert in electronics and astronomy, has one of the most specialized and unusual
jobs in the world; he is a propagation analyst.
What, exactly, does a propagation analyst do? Well, Mr. Nelson forecasts the
radio weather, or, in more scientific terms, he predicts the magnetic condition
of the ionosphere, a major factor in the propagation of radio waves over long distances.
To demonstrate the practical value of knowing what the radio weather will be, let's
take a typical example.
Transatlantic Message. Suppose we want to send a message from New
York to London. Normally, this message would be transmitted from the RCA station
at Rocky Point, N. Y., directly to London. But today, let's say, Mr. Nelson has
predicted that conditions will be bad over the direct New York - London route.
Propagation analyst John H. Nelson is shown at his observatory
in the heart of New York City's financial district.
Mr. Nelson uses solar map to study sunspot activity. Illustrations
courtesy of RCA Communications
Fig. 1 - Radio waves are reflected back to Earth by the action
of the ionosphere, thus making possible long-distance radio communications.
Fig. 2 - When Saturn, Jupiter, and the Earth are at 90° to each
other, magnetic storms appear on Earth and radio reception is poor. Drawing at top
is artist's conception of this relationship.
So, after consulting one of Mr. Nelson's charts, we decide to reroute the message
over an alternate path which is free of ionospheric disturbances. Instead of taking
the direct route, we send the message through traffic relay points at Paramaribo
on the northern coast of South America, or at Tangier in North Africa. From these
points the message is relayed to its destination in London.
This rerouting takes advantage of normally ideal north and south transmitting
conditions. Thus, rather than being chopped up and garbled because of unfavorable
ionospheric conditions, thanks to Mr. Nelson's advance warning, our message gets
to London clearly, accurately, and on time.
Radio Propagation. To appreciate the importance of knowing the
condition of the ionosphere in predicting radio weather, it is necessary to understand
how a radio wave is propagated through space and what part the ionosphere plays
in this process. The ionosphere extends from about 40 to 200 miles above the Earth
and is composed of a fantastic number of "free" electrons which have been knocked
loose from their atoms by ultraviolet rays, cosmic rays, and solar radiation. This
gigantic electron sea floats high in our atmosphere, and, like its watery counterparts
on Earth, it has tides, storms, and currents.
If conditions within the ionosphere are right, when a radio wave from a transmitter
strikes it, the wave will be bounced back in much the same manner that light rays
are reflected by a mirror. Thus, the radio wave can be returned to the Earth at
a considerable distance from its point of origin (see Fig. 1). Long-distance radio
communication would be impossible without this reflecting action of the ionosphere.
The next question is: how does a propagation analyst know when the ionosphere
is going to reflect the radio wave properly?
Charting the Planets. Amazing as it may seem, Mr. Nelson predicts
the condition of the ionosphere, and thus, the radio weather, by charting the positions
of the planets. He first began to study radio wave propagation in 1946, at which
time he was able to achieve 80% accuracy on 24-hour forecasts by basing predictions
on sunspot observation. In spite of the apparent success of the sunspot prediction
method, however, he felt that the condition of the ionosphere was determined not
only by sunspots, but also by the relative positions of the planets as they circle
around the sun.
Later investigation proved this theory to be correct. As a result of studying
planetary positions in addition to sunspot activity, Mr. Nelson's forecasts are
now 90% accurate for 30-hour periods. His long-range forecasts, covering periods
of 36 days, are 80% accurate.
Pluto's angular relationship with the other planets is exceptionally significant
in its effect on the radio weather, according to Mr. Nelson. During the International
Geophysical Year, which began on July 1, 1957, and ran through December 31, 1958,
there were, six very severe magnetic storms and radio disturbances. Analyzing his
data, Mr. Nelson found that the positioning of Pluto at a critical zero angle -
three times with Venus and once with Mercury - showed up on four of the six disturbances.
Since Pluto's mean distance from the sun is 3,671,000,000 miles, its influence would
seem to be far-reaching indeed.
Important Relationships. The results of Mr. Nelson's plottings
of the planetary positions over more than ten years of research have brought to
light six important facts about the relationships of the planets and radio conditions
on Earth. These are the significant relationships which he uses in making forecasts,
and may be summed up as follows:
(1) Best radio reception periods occur when Saturn and Jupiter are 120° apart
(2) The most severe disturbances occur when Mars, Venus, Mercury and the Earth
are in critical relationship near points of the Saturn-Jupiter configuration.
(3) When two or more planets are at right angles to each other, or in line on
the same side of the Sun, or in line with the Sun between them, magnetic disturbances
occur more frequently on the Earth's surface. (See Fig. 2.)
(4) When the planets have moved away from their critical relationship, there
is a corresponding decline in the severity of the magnetic weather.
(5) Three planets equally spaced at 15°, 30°,60°, or 120° have a tendency to
produce disturbed radio signals if two of the planets are fast-moving and one is
a slow-moving planet, or if all three are fast-moving planets.
(6) Three planets equally spaced at 60° and four planets equally spaced at 60°
will disturb radio signals if at least two or more of the planets are fast-moving.
If three or more of the planets in this arrangement are slow planets, no disturbance
Successful Predictions. Mr. Nelson does not attempt to explain
why these things happen as they do. What he has learned from his study is that they
do happen. Proof? His predictions are successful!
In making a forecast, Mr. Nelson starts by calculating the positions of the planets
with respect to each other. When a significant combination of angles is indicated,
he then calculates the positions to plus or minus 6 minutes of arc for each hour
of the day. It is this data which allows him to make the forecast.
The implications of John Nelson's work with the planets and radio waves leaves
one with the impression that planetary positions might be important in other phases
of our lives. Perhaps the ancients' superstitious study of the heavens deserves
reevaluation by those of us interested in modern science.
Posted February 5, 2019
(updated from original post on 9/22/2011)