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Interviews: Forrest Mims Answers Your Questions 161

A while ago you had the chance to ask amateur scientist, and author of the Getting Started in Electronics and the Engineer's Mini-Notebook series, Forrest Mims, a number of questions about science, engineering, and a lifetime of educating and experimenting. Below you'll find his detailed answers to those questions.
by lyapunov

You are the quintessential tinkerer with a non-standard education. What was the key inspiration that started you on this path? What do you feel provides the most inspiration in others, in particular kids, to learn and do hands on tasks?

Mims: Give kids a lab or robotics kit and watch their curiosity and creativity explode. Glue them to chairs in a classroom and watch them grow bored and disillusioned as their curiosity dissipates.

My dad was a US Air Force pilot as well as an artist and architect. He definitely encouraged curiosity, especially when he built a beautiful crystal radio set for my brother and me. During two 6th grade assemblies a visiting physicist and an Air Force meteorologist conducted fascinating demonstrations of cryogenics and weather balloons. As a teenager I read everything I could about transistor circuits in Popular Mechanics and Popular Electronics and “The Amateur Scientist” column in Scientific American. I even dreamed of someday writing for those magazines. An article in the July 1954 issue of National Geographic (“New Miracles of the Telephone Age”) included absolutely mesmerizing photos of transistors and silicon solar cells. Over the years hundreds of emails and letters have arrived from readers of my books who reported they were inspired as teenagers or young adults to enter electronics or science because of them. That was completely unexpected, for writing those books was just a part of my electronics hobby. So it seems that inspiration often begins at a very early age.

But young people don’t have an exclusive monopoly on exciting discoveries and projects. What can be more amazing than the molecular motors that walk along microtubules in our cells while towing huge loads? Then there’s my new project of using ultra-sensitive, homemade photometers to measure the brightness of the zenith sky during twilight to extract the altitude of atmospheric dust layers and the ozone layer. This is the most exciting science I’ve done in 20 years!

Re:No Question
by B1ackDragon

...I also have "Getting Started in Electronics" and a couple of "Engineer's Mini-Notebooks" still on my shelf, with the intention of giving them to my kids one day. Question for Mr. Mims: what was it like getting a completely handwritten book published? Did you approach RadioShack with the idea? Given all the modern publication options (self-pub, iBooks, etc.) and software to help, how would you go about it today? (I know, that's three questions...)

Mims: Interesting question. David Gunzel was Radio Shack’s technical editor back in 1978. Back then he sometimes agreed to witness pages in my lab notebooks, which were all hand printed and illustrated. One day Dave said that I should do a hand-lettered book for Radio Shack, so it was his idea. The result was Engineer’s Notebook, which sold more than 600,000 copies. This book was printed on toothed (roughened) Mylar with India ink—which meant entire pages had to be redone when a mistake was made. The middle finger of my right hand bled while printing this book. All 15 or so subsequent hand-lettered books were printed with a 0.7-mm mechanical pencil on stiff stock. This allowed errors to be easily erased and corrected. The Mini-Notebook series (all 16 volumes now merged into four) was prepared on paper, as was Getting Started in Electronics, which was completely planned, printed and drawn in 54 days, including rebuilding and testing every one of the 100 circuits four times to make sure there were zero errors. (It’s essential to rebuild circuits from the circuit drawings and not from memory!) Getting Started in Electronics has sold 1.3+ million copies and is still in print.

What book are you most proud of?
by TheBrez

What single book are you the most proud of, and see as your best work? Or which one have you had the most people tell you was the book they use/recommend the most?

Mims: Getting Started in Electronics remains my favorite book and still brings in many comments online and in emails. Science Projects, a Mini-Notebook, is a close second. From a scholarly perspective, Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory: Fifty Years of Monitoring the Atmosphere was by far my most ambitious work. This book was four years in the making and was based on my many stays at Mauna Loa Observatory (1992 to present) to calibrate my atmospheric monitoring instruments.

Model Rocketry
by Anonymous Coward

Please retell the story of how you got started in Model Rocketry and some of your earlier projects, successes, and of course failures. Be sure to name names and clubs!

Mims: Great question! I’ve devoted space to this topic in a new memoir now being written. It all began way back in 1967 in Colorado Springs when my dad took me to a model rocket meeting staged by what became Estes Industries. For Christmas that year I received an Aerobee-Hi rocket kit. The rocket was quickly built and reached an altitude of 671 feet on its first flight. Before we moved to Colorado, where my dad was assigned as project officer for the Air Force Academy Chapel, I was seated in a hot seventh-grade classroom at Hamilton Junior High School watching a big fan by the door when the idea of a ram-air controlled rocket popped into my mind. The idea was a rocket that was steered not by fins but by air entering the open nose of a rocket and then jetted out ports in the nose cone. This project dominated my experimenting for several years, and its successes and failures will be covered in detail in the new memoir. The major success was confirmation that the ram air principle actually worked during test flights. The biggest failure was that the best made sun-homing test rocket control section worked great—but failed miserably during ground tests (suspended from a string looking at a flashlight) when the ram air scanner rapidly stopped during a course change and its inertia caused the entire rocket to spin.

The ram air project involved many test flights, and night flights were best since the rocket path could be easily recorded on film. To recover these rockets, I built a very small 2-transistor light flasher (which I still have). When I demonstrated the flasher during a night launch at a model rocket meeting in Portales, New Mexico, in 1969, George Flynn, editor of Model Rocketry magazine, asked me to write an article about its construction. I build a new flasher for the article, which was published in September 1969. I was very surprised when Flynn sent a check for $93.50 for the article. I told my wife Minnie that I wanted to become a freelance writer and showed my friend Ed Roberts the article. Ed and I were both assigned to the Air Force Weapons Laboratory in Albuquerque, NM, at the time, and we often discussed forming a company to sell electronic kits through Popular Electronics and Radio-Electronics magazines. When Ed saw the article in Model Rocketry, he agreed it was time to start a company. We invited Stan Cagle and Bob Zaller to join us in a meeting at Ed’s house, where we decided to call the company Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS). You can read the details on my web site. Our first product was my light flasher circuit. I left both MITS and the Air Force after a year or so to become a freelance writer but stayed connected by writing manuals for various MITS products. I also arranged a meeting with Ed and Les Solomon of Popular Electronics when Les came to visit my wife Minnie and me. That meeting led to the Opticom article (a MITS light-wave communication system), various calculator articles and finally a cover story in January 1975 on the MITS Altair 8800, a microcomputer designed by Ed. The Altair was featured on the cover, which attracted Paul Allen’s attention. He bought the magazine in a Harvard Square news store and immediately took it to his high school friend Bill Gates. Within months, Paul was working at MITS, and Bill followed later. They organized Microsoft shortly thereafter. Paul Allen planned a great exhibit on the early days of microcomputing, which began in Albuquerque, not the West Coast. The exhibit is called STARTUP. It occupies an entire gallery at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque. On display are the first BASIC tape, early computer stuff, and the light flasher (and rocket) I built for Model Rocketry magazine.

by Anonymous Coward

Of all the projects you have worked on, what has been your favorite? Personal or professional. (I would like to express my gratitude, getting started with electronics, got me started in electronics and I am now an engineer. I also have a "non-standard" education as they say, having mostly taught myself from reading and taking online free courses.

Mims: First, I’m glad you are largely self-taught. That’s often the best way.

Favorite Projects:

1. 1966-72: Various electronic travel aids for the blind, a project inspired by my blind great grandfather. The 2-transistor pulse generator for the LED was based on a $0.99 code practice oscillator board from a radio/TV repair shop when I was in college (spring 1966). That oscillator circuit dominated my learning curve for several years and evolved into the rocket light flasher that led to the founding of MITS.

2. 1990-Present: First sun photometers to use LEDs as spectrally selective photodiodes (still very involved with this after 25 years of near daily measurements).

3. 1990-Present: Compact 2-channel UV-B photometer for measuring the ozone layer to within 1-2% accuracy. The original two instruments (TOPS-1 and 2) found an error in NASA’s Nimbus 7 ozone instrument and led to my first publication in Nature. This work led to a 1993 Rolex Award. TOPS evolved into Microtops II, a sophisticated instrument engineered by Solar Light that’s used around the world to monitor the ozone layer, total water vapor and haze.

4. 2013-Present: Miniature photometers that measure twilight glows and enable the detection and elevation of stratospheric dust layers and the ozone layer. This is really exciting work and I will soon be comparing results from my homemade instruments with two lidars at the Mauna Loa Observatory.

a distinguished tinkerer, indeed
by swschrad

I grew up on your Popular Electronics crew, all those soldering wizards who educated us all. I'd like to hear the back-story of how you and AT&T got into a cage battle over optoelectronics

Mims: The Bell Labs story is told in Siliconnections and will be retold with new info in the new memoir. During my senior year in high school I reasoned that a solid state light detector should also function as a light source, much as an electromagnetic earphone could double as a microphone. Briefly, I connected an automobile spark coil to a CdS photocell—which emitted flashes of green light when stimulated by 12,000 volts from the coil. In 1972 I experimented with LEDs as photodiodes and described this in a book (Light Emitting Diodes, pp. 118-119). In the early 1980s I sent Bell Labs an invention disclosure for how an LED can be used as 2-way emitter/detector at either end of an optical fiber. They agreed in writing to contact me if they wanted to pursue my disclosure, but they never did. A few years later, Dave Gunzel, Radio Shack’s tech editor, sent me a Business Week article that announced Bell Labs had discovered what I submitted to them. I made 2 trips to New York to negotiate with them, but they wanted me to do work for them in return for me canceling my claim. In the end, I visited a sharp patent lawyer, and we sued. After a series of funny depositions and other adventures, the well-known Texas trial lawyer Bell Labs had hired told them they needed to settle the case. They did. They also abandoned a patent application they had filed (after I complained to a Federal judge).

Re:Ask him about Darwin
by femtobyte

Why do you trust science when it comes to electronics, but not when it comes to biology?

Mims: I trusted biology in the 6th grade when our science book showed a photo of Piltdown Man and explained how he was the missing link between apes and people. This book persuaded me to accept evolution and to almost reject Christianity. However, while researching Piltdown Man at an Air Force Academy library when I was in the 11th grade, I learned that the 1912 discovery was actually one of science’s biggest hoaxes. Even though some scientists never accepted Piltdown as authentic, the scientific consensus was that it was real, and this admission was not formalized for 40 years. That was three years before my sixth grade science book was handed to us gullible students and presented as scientific fact. While working with scientists at the Air Force Weapons Lab on a variety of sophisticated experiments involving rhesus monkeys, I decided to look more into evolution. I began collecting fossils and have since accumulated a fair number of insects encapsulated in ancient amber. By my mid-twenties, I made the conscious decision to reject Darwinian evolution in favor of what is now called intelligent design. (I prefer Superintelligent Design. ID is a misnomer, since no one has proposed the details of exactly how life has been intelligently designed ex nihilo.) The bottom line for me was that Piltdown taught me to be skeptical of scientific paradigms. Of course, that’s what science in general once taught. But these days we are supposed to accept anything that’s claimed to be the product of “scientific consensus.”

Back to your question, yes, I certainly trust science when it comes to electronics and biology. In fact, I’ve merged electronics and biology in a long term and ongoing study of daily photosynthetic radiation. I published a paper on 5-years of data using a homemade instrument in Photochemistry and Photobiology. Evolutionary science offers no viable explanation for the evolution of photosynthesis. I’ve also merged electronics and biology in an ongoing study of selective tannin deposition in the annual growth rings of various trees, especially two distinctive varieties of baldcypress (Taxodium distichum).

But I question paradigms and never trust pseudoscience, like the idea that life arose on its own through purely random processes. Occam’s razor recommends the simplest solution to a problem as being the best. Intentional design of living systems—the God hypothesis in my view, others have different ideas--is a far simpler explanation than random natural processes that have never been observed to create molecular motors and other absolutely indispensable elements of living cells. Back to electronics, it’s easy to conceive of an application, but implementing a circuit to implement the application is not a random process. I’ve built thousands of circuits, none of which were made by randomly wiring together components. The same applies to code. No one I know has ever randomly poked keys on a keyboard in an effort to create a new routine. In medicine, random events like this are called mutations, the vast majority of which are non-beneficial. When I designed the PIP processor from discrete TTL chips, it was necessary to design both the circuit and the microinstructions. PIP was built on our kitchen table, and was a bird’s nest of wires. Remove or replace a single wire or randomly change a microinstruction, and it would not work. But I was careful, and it worked. I published a book and 4 articles based on PIP, not one connection of which was random. In fact, as the designer of that rather difficult project, I might have been somewhat offended had someone suggested I relied on random processes for any aspect of its design and/or assembly. ; )

I apply these same standards to all science, so let’s briefly examine evolution.

1. RANDOM EVOLUTION. The random processes thought to underlie evolution occur throughout nature. I’ve built a Geiger counter to record the random arrival of subatomic particles, and I once wrote a program to quickly evaluate “random number generators” by plotting them as x,y coordinates. Imperfect generators were quickly revealed when their numbers formed streaks and bands across the screen. But I am unaware of how naturally random processes could have led to the first life forms, much less the information encoded within them. Consider the earliest cyanobacteria from the Precambrian. These ancient life forms were capable of cell division, and they included complex information that controlled their structure, metabolism and reproduction. Modern single-celled organisms multiply by various forms of division. In all cases, various molecular motors physically split and move the internal structures of the dividing cell, sometimes under great pressure. Consider kinesin motors that literally walk along internal microtubules towing huge loads. These motors are too small to image (they walk 8 nm per step at up to 100 steps/second), but Ron Vale’s team at the University of California at San Francisco has managed to affix glowing quantum dots to them so their movements can be observed in real time. There are many other kinds of molecular motors, including the sliders in muscle tissue and the rotary motors that drive flagella and perform amazing internal functions much like machines in a factory.

The evolution of these complex molecules, which had to exist in the earliest cells, is so improbable that the evolutionary literature is being increasingly criticized for failing to include evolutionary explanations for them. That’s a huge problem for evolutionary molecular biologists, some of whom I know. Do they really believe that a rotary nanomotor that spins an axle at a thousand or so rpm and can stop in only a revolution—all at an efficiency approaching 100 percent—somehow randomly arose from a cluster of molecules hanging out in a protocell? Do they really believe these motors can walk, slide and rotate while performing many functions absolutely essential to the life of a cell—all without a nervous system, brain, eyes or muscles? Ron Vale’s team, Harvard, the Discovery Institute and others have produced remarkable videos that show animations of molecular motors. Before committing yourself to the notion these highly complex machines evolved, have a look at some of their videos on YouTube and start asking questions. You will immediately realize why molecular biologists avoid discussing the supposed evolution of these nanomachines.

2. DARWIN. Moving on to higher forms of life, all of which rely on molecular motors, Darwin knew nothing about DNA, molecular motors and the self-assembling microtubules that support cell structures and serve as tracks for walking kinesin motors when he proposed his hypothesis of natural selection. Natural selection works great at macro levels. That’s why people have been able to select special characteristics of plants and animals to develop new varieties. But even dogs (Canis familiaris) can reproduce with their key predecessors (Canis lupis). Dogs have never evolved into anything other than dogs.

3. DARWIN’S ESCAPE CLAUSE. Charles Darwin injected a vital escape clause into his famous The Origin of Species when he recognized the absence of any fossils that transitioned into the remarkably diverse and complex creatures found in the Cambrian. Darwin wrote, “There is another and allied difficulty, which is much more serious. I allude to the manner in which species belonging to several of the main divisions of the animal kingdom suddenly appear in the lowest known fossiliferous rocks.To the question why we do not find rich fossiliferous deposits belonging to these assumed earliest periods prior to the Cambrian system, I can give no satisfactory answer.The case at present must remain inexplicable; and may be truly urged as a valid argument against the views here entertained.”

Today’s strict evolutionists are unhappy about Darwin’s views, for even today he would be unable to provide a satisfactory explanation. Thanks to Darwin for advocating the skeptical side of science, a side that is too often ignored or even banished when philosophical matters intervene. And that’s the final line. Ever since I was banished from Scientific American magazine after the editors asked if I believe in Darwinian evolution (no) or the sanctity of life (yes), a small number of dedicated atheists have attempted to discredit both me and my science. I know Christians who accept Darwinian evolution and those who do not. But hardline atheists have no choice but to resist any alternatives to evolution. This hasn’t impressed my editors, publishers, science colleagues and, yes, the atheist friends and colleagues with whom I have done considerable science. There just happen to be some determined atheists out there who seem to have a calling to flame anyone who rejects their philosophy in favor of a higher power or, more perhaps more appropriately in my case, a Creator. Your question doesn’t use that approach, and I appreciate that.

by cowtamer

What do you feel about the Maker movement and Makerspaces in general?It seems to me as the Maker/tinkerer is the new equivalent to the electronics hobbyist. Do you believe new project designs need to keep this in mind? (i.e, present the design of an entire gadget instead of just the electronics)?

Mims: Fantastic question! Hobby electronics experienced a sharp reversal when it worked its way out of a hobby by evolving (under the lead of designers, of course) into commercially available computers. This was a major concern to many of us who judged science fairs. Physics and engineering experiments nearly disappeared while soft projects in environmental science multiplied.

Two developments have reversed the decline of hobby electronics:

1. ROBOTICS: The robotics movement has transformed many students from passive learners to active experimenters and designers. My current column in MAKE magazine proposes a new kind of robotics competition in which “Marsbots” slip behind a curtain to a scene visible only to spectators and perform a variety of tests of a simulated Martian environment and atmosphere. If this becomes a competition someday, students will learn many new concepts in math, electronics, mechanics, environmental sensing and monitoring, data analysis, and, of course, robotics. They will do all this in one major project while having loads of fun!

2. MAKER MOVEMENT: There’s always been a maker movement. It began with hand-woven baskets and hand-chipped flints. Today’s maker movement really took off when MAKE magazine arrived and began publishing projects that people were doing all along in private. Thanks to the highly creative team at MAKE, the movement has expanded well beyond what it once was.

You asked a key question: [Should we] present the design of an entire gadget instead of just the electronics? I think of it this way:

a. Present any circuit that does something useful, whether or not you have found what that use might be.
b. Present complete circuits that do something useful whenever possible.
c. Share your talents and aspirations by merging them into practical, useful projects.
d. Publish your projects! Nuts&Volts is a fantastic electronics magazine. MAKE is the ultimate maker’s magazine. If you make a scientific discovery submit your work to a scientific journal. If it’s published, you will have more credibility than ever before.

Doing electronics alone is fun, but it’s not always creative. I found my niche by using electronics to develop entirely new kinds of gadgets and instruments—like an oscilloscope the size of a postage stamp, a surface-mount organ assembled with conductive paint on a business card, and a stepped-tone generator that was renamed the “Atari Punk Console.” (I had no idea how much influence the latter circuit had until being asked to give a talk at Moogfest 2014. Search Google for more.)

Then there’s added value, as I’m trying to do with a range of compact, inexpensive instruments designed to monitor the atmosphere’s ozone layer, water vapor layer, haze and so forth. Some of these instruments use ordinary LEDs as spectrally-selective photodiodes instead of expensive filters.

Challenges faced by computer-aided learning
by LordMyren

You've written hobbyist-targetting books with Radio Shack that work through hands on projects hobbyists can do themselves. My question is, for those seeking to carry your mission in writing those books over to computer-aided or simulation based learning, what things of value did you create that will be the hardest to carry forwards and what are the greatest things of value that computer-assistance will uniquely be able to take & make it's own & go furthest with?

Mims: This is a tough questions. The Radio Shack books are really best for hands-on learning. I saw this firsthand while teaching basic electronics and experimental science to humanities majors at the University of the Nations in Hawaii and Switzerland. The students are from all over the world, and they all exhibited the same response, viz., lectures about science and electronics are boring at best, even when supplemented with cool videos and PowerPoints. But hands on learning is exciting and contagious. When students were given my Electronics Learning Lab one never knew what to expect. They were at first timid. But after 5 minutes they were building their first circuits. One class became so excited—and loud--while building light-sensitive tone generators that the classes on either side of mine gave up and walked in my class to see what was happening. Check out my YouTube video of a typical reaction of two students building a tone generator.

I will think more about your question, for there’s certainly a role for computer assisted learning. But based on many years of experience, I’m biased toward the hands-on approach.

Past vs present
by ArcadeMan

What's your opinion on the old ways, i.e. buying parts locally from Radio Shack and meeting people in local clubs compared to the new online way of buying parts and kits, publishing tutorials and forums full of people helping each other?More to the point, what do you think has been lost from the old way and what has been gained from the new way?

Mims: This is an intriguing question. While I was never a member of an electronics club, I know some people who were. I also spent time showing friends how to build circuits. I doubt if there’s a better way to learn to solder than watching an experienced person solder a connection. That’s how I taught my son Eric to solder when he was only four years old. About that time I organized the Albuquerque Academy Model Rocket and taught teens how to make rockets, design experiments and build instruments. Yes, maybe some of this firsthand instruction has been lost these days. But maybe robotics clubs and groups have brought back much of it. If asked to trade, I would take today’s approach of do-it-yourself electronics over the old days. Moving on to science, I really think the old method was better. Science today is dominated by labs filled with teams, often working with very costly equipment. Today’s amateur scientists have access to highly sophisticated equipment on the surplus market, so that’s a major advance. But it’s often difficult for even highly creative amateur scientists to win the recognition they deserve unless they publish in leading journals of science, the most difficult kind of publishing on the planet.
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Interviews: Forrest Mims Answers Your Questions

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  • by K. S. Kyosuke ( 729550 ) on Monday June 09, 2014 @12:53PM (#47195973)
    First, Mims cites witnessing an example of the self-corrective mechanism of science in action as a reason to reject it. How does that even make sense? The whole of science is built on that principle in the first place! Second, claiming that "the God hypothesis is a simpler explanation" doesn't make any sense either. So we explain away the existence of complex sentient entities (us) by assuming the existence of another complex sentient entity? In what sense is this not merely postponing the problem? The rest is a bunch of arguments from incredulity and ignorance ("I don't know how it could have happened, so it didn't happen!")
  • by ItsJustAPseudonym ( 1259172 ) on Monday June 09, 2014 @01:12PM (#47196121)
    I agree with your general inputs and conclusions. However, I think that Mims is correct, in a sense.

    "The evolution of these complex molecules, which had to exist in the earliest cells, is so improbable..." --Mims

    Yes, it is improbable, on a small-scale, and that seems to be where Mims' analysis has stopped.

    "If enough random things happen and the beneficial things survive, then not only is the evolution not improbable, it's almost inevitable given enough time." --parent

    Yes indeed.

    I found Mims' statement that he has "built thousands of circuits, none of which were made by randomly wiring together components" very telling. If he were to wire billions of circuits by randomly wiring together components, then he might end up with a few that were useful.

    I'm having a hard time reconciling his beliefs with his electronic achievements. This is not meant as a slam.

  • by K. S. Kyosuke ( 729550 ) on Monday June 09, 2014 @01:45PM (#47196393)

    If he were to wire billions of circuits by randomly wiring together components, then he might end up with a few that were useful.

    There are people who did exactly that [] with simulators and FPGAs. Some of these circuits have peculiar properties like being very sensitive to the substrate they're working on, and I got the overall impression that they're sort of messy and "un-designed-like", just like living organisms, as opposed to engineered machines.

It's fabulous! We haven't seen anything like it in the last half an hour! -- Macy's