Things are complicated

When I decided my career path to be that of RF Engineering, I had no doubt it was going to be difficult but I never suspected how much digging in other branches of science and math is required.

My first idea was to go straight to the RF specialized books and hope that my (then) math and physics background (early undergrad computer engineering) would be sufficient. I couldn’t be wronger! From the first few pages the authors made crystal clear their demand for a comprehensive knowledge on electrodynamics and analog circuit design. In addition, after spending some time with the concept of communications, I realized that signal processing is just as important.

Tackling electrodynamics is easy, right? It is a 150 years old theory, you just grab one of the thousands books that have been written on this subject and start from there. And that is exactly what I did. I bought Introduction to Electrodynamics and I fell into the trap, again. Just like before, I assumed my math background was enough and the first introductory chapter about the math used for the rest of the book will do the job. That was a mistake. Vector Calculus is not a mathematical hard subject if you are familiar with the basics of Calculus, but it is intuitively challenging. You need to see many line and surface integral problems in order to master the whole concept. Calculus came to the rescue. It is a decent choice for an undergrad student who wants to make the leap from high school maths to college maths.

Signal Processing is the bridge between the real world and mathematics. There are a lot of great SP textbooks and, in my opinion, Signals and Systems is just superior. It covers every major topic of SP and it includes many exercises of all kind of levels. Even though it is an undergrad textbook, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was to be used in a postgrad program. Once again, just one textbook fails to cover the topic satisfactory. Firstly, with the advent of super small and fast microprocessors and ADCs, Digital Signal Processing is the industry’s new trend (yes, even for RF frequencies, see SDR) and, secondly, most of the signal processing applications deal with the issue of noise. That means we need probability theory. My favorite DSP textbook is Digital Signal Processing: Signals, Systems and Filters and, of course, the best book on probability theory and stochastic processes (for the last 50 years) is Probability, Random Variables and Stochastic Processes. Finally, the natural language of Signal Processing is Complex Analysis. That’s why we need a book for that, as well.

Analog circuit design is a rather difficult and specialized topic. I read Microelectronic Circuits and, even though I enjoyed it, it was not what I was looking for. This book is just an introduction to the field of analog electronics. The real deal is Analysis and Design of Analog Integrated Circuits. Guess what? That’s right! We need more textbooks in order to get deep enough. This book teaches great almost all of the techniques of analog circuit design, but it doesn’t explain well how the transistor actually works (the first chapter is devoted to that particular cause, but it is mostly copy paste of equations from the reference book). You will not really understand the physics and the mechanisms behind the operation of a transistor and, therefore, we need a textbook to fill the gap. I think Semiconductor Physics and Devices is good enough, except that what Analysis and Design of Analog Integrated Circuits is doing with the explanation of the transistor’s mechanics (copy paste of equations from other books and abrupt explanations) is what Semiconductor Physics and Devices is doing in their introductory chapter on Quantum Mechanics. That’s why I caught myself studying Introduction to Quantum Mechanics trying to understand why the “potential” function V is being treaty like it represents energy (Joules) instead of energy per charge (Joules/Coulomb) (it turns out its whole name, which is not mentioned in the textbook(!), is “potential energy function” and Griffiths is making an explicit statement about that fact). Finally, you need a book to actually get in microwave engineering (these days RF engineering implies frequencies of over 5 GHz) and this is greatly done by Microwave Engineering.

So, if someone wants to grasp RF Engineering he needs to study, at least, 10 textbooks! Even if they are to be covered in one semester, it will take years. And, of course, you are not a real RF Engineer yet, because you need real world experience with these systems and they are expensive and hard to use by an amateur. Now, compare these prerequisites with the prerequisites of a Software Engineer, for example. These people often don’t even need textbooks! But even if we must choose some, 4 textbooks are more than enough (Algorithms, Data Structures, some Programming Language and Discrete Mathematics). In addition, they don’t need any specialized equipment to check their work.

Three years after this crucial decision of mine, my journey so far can be accurately depicted by the following gif image.

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