© copyright 2004 Michael P.
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
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.
previous journal entries