by Bryan Bergeron, Editor by Bryan Bergeron, Editor
Know Your Basics
One of my ongoing activities is working with a DoD- funded research team that is developing an open
source model of the human body. In a few years, a
professor should be able to teach medical students how,
for example, the lungs work without sacrificing an
animal. The interesting point about this project — which
involves computer scientists, engineers, physicians, and
physiologists — is that the common language is simple
discrete component electronics.
For example, in developing a model of the lungs, we
represent each lung with a diode, a few resistors, and a
capacitor. That's it. Add AC or DC driving signals, and
the current and voltage swings mimic the pressures and
flows in the lungs.
The take-away of this illustration is that it's important
for you to learn the basics. I'm talking Ohms Law, serial
and parallel discrete components, and simple signal
sources. This might seem self-evident, but since the
introduction of the increasingly popular microcontrollers
and standard sensors and effectors, it's possible to create
electronic devices without ever touching a capacitor
or resistor. Why use a pull-up resistor when
microcontrollers (such as the Arduino) allow you to
specify pull-ups in software?
Of course, if your time is limited and you have a
specific project in mind, you want a solution as soon as
possible. However, if your goal is to master the art of
electronics, then you need to understand the basics.
Ten years from now when the current generation of
microcontrollers — and your knowledge of their specifics
— is worthless, there will be applications for Ohms Law
and basic circuitry. As illustrated by my experience
working with scientists from varied backgrounds, basic
circuitry can be a Rosetta Stone for communications —
second only to pure mathematics.
So, let's say you're sold on the concept of getting a
solid foundation in the basics. Just how do you get this
grounding? Well, in addition to the occasional
introductory articles in Nuts & Volts, check out the
classics such as one of the introductory texts from
Forrest Mims III ( www.forrestmims.org). Then, there's
the timeless Art of Electronics by Horowitz and Hill. If
you're not into reading, there are dozens of introductory
electronics tutorials on YouTube.
These passive sources of information are all perhaps
necessary, but by no means sufficient to get you where
you need to be. You need some hands-on experience to
ground your theoretical understanding of basic
electronics. Pick up a kit that uses discrete components
— one that lets you easily substitute the components.
Another route is to tear down every electronic device
you can get your hands on.
Don't let any electronic device that is destined for
the landfill escape your pliers and soldering iron. Take
notes and take hostages (remove components for
repurposing). Try to figure out the underlying circuit and
create a schematic. Then, try to improve on the basic
Once you've achieved this level of success, you've
mastered the basics. NV
6 March 2014
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