© copyright 2004 Michael P. Hamilton, Ph.D.


Of snakes and soldering irons



September 22, 1996:

What is a digital naturalist? To my environmentalist friends, the term is an oxymoron -- "digital" and "naturalist" seem contradictory. A naturalist is someone who studies the natural world, who can name all the local plants and animals and insects, and explain ecology. Digital ... well, that is an electrical engineering term for the binary language of computers, the endless streams of zeros and ones that are the basis of all software. So why do I call myself a digital naturalist? I guess you can blame it on my childhood. My earliest memories are inextricably merged between images of catching snakes that were longer than I was tall, and discovering that my father's soldering iron was hot enough to deliver a painful burn on the finger of a curious child.


how I remember my bedroom as a child


My interest in science was insatiable and my curiosity ran the whole gamut, from exploring the inner workings of our washing machine, or the hundreds of small electrical parts that composed our home stereo, to watching how my pregnant garter snake could give live birth to her 30-plus offspring. To a well equipped (child) scientist, the tools of your laboratory (bedroom) include pencils, notebooks, beakers, test tubes, bones, butterfly net, killing jar, microscope, telescope, live animals, decaying matter, high voltage transformers, comic books, Jules Verne novels, dissected toads, tape recorder, lots of wire, and anything else that is really cool.

As my scientific studies matured, so did the tools that I utilized to make sense of everything. When your father happens to be an electrical engineer, a teen-ager doesn't think twice about building an apparatus to measure the brightness of stars, or a battery-powered mosquito repeller, or a machine that detects a tomato plant's sensitivity to rock and roll music.


plant psychogalvometer to detect "botanical feelings"


I built my first computer in the 7th grade, using more than a hundred relay switches and miniature light bulbs, and by the time I finished high school, I had simulated the physical environment of Mars using an old freezer, a vacuum pump, tailings from an iron ore mine, and other odds and ends. For me, life was an endless string connecting one science experiment and outdoor exploration after another. Starting college at Cal Poly University was like going to heaven. As a freshman, I persuaded my biology professors into giving me access to their labs so I could conduct my own research. Now I had real equipment and laboratory space much larger and more sophisticated than anything in my bedroom or my father's garage.


electric fish detector


Over the next few years, I built machines to study the electric fields generated by Venezuelan knife fishes, devices to measure the rate of movement of sap inside a living tree, and an electronic hummingbird feeder that counts the number of birds it serves, while identifying individual species by calculating how fast their wings flapped per second. Computers fired my imagination, and when I found plans in a Popular Electronics magazine for building a primitive computer using Radio Shack parts, I built it and it worked.



automatic hummingbird monitoring system and schematic


During those six years at Cal Poly, I commuted every weekend from Pomona to Idyllwild or up the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to my job as a seasonal wilderness park aide with the California State Park. According to my friends, I was a serious example of the "early man" stage of nerd evolution, as happy backpacking through the wilderness as I was dissecting electronic circuit boards. However, my true love was, and still is, in exploring the wilds of nature, particularly our beautiful San Jacinto Mountains.


ranger Mike on patrol


Over the years I have ventured I have ventured far and wide, studying desert canyons and Alaskan tundra, South American rain forests, African rivers and dunes, and undersea landscapes. When I return to these mountains, my home, I'm never at a loss to identify something new, hike an untouched canyon, or solve a backyard mystery.



I'm still captivated by computers, and especially by their potential to assist us in protecting our fragile environment. Over the next few weeks I hope to share some of my experiences exploring the boundaries between nature and technology, and of course I would appreciate your comments.

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