Chris Gammell designs custom electronics for businesses via his company, Analog Life LLC. His podcast, the Amp Hour, discusses electronic engineering and the science that drives it. Chris also teaches online courses in designing custom electronics at contextualelectronics.com.
Jayshree Seth: 70% of people we surveyed said that they rarely, or never, think about how science affects their everyday lives. We’ll explore how science affects everything from cell phones to cosplay on this episode of Science Champions.
Welcome to Science Champions. I’m Jayshree Seth, Chief Science Advocate at 3M.
Imagine everything that involved science suddenly vanished from your house. What would you be left with? Say goodbye to WiFi, electric light bulbs, electricity in general… refrigeration and filtered water… let’s just say it’s a long list.
Yet despite the massive impact of science on society, most people don’t give it a second thought. It’s invisible, it’s everywhere, but it’s taken for granted.
On this episode, we’re talking to someone who bridges the gap between the lab and the living room.
Chris Gammell has been an Electrical Engineer for 15 years. He’s a consultant, and he designs devices and sensors for the industrial world, and he’s also the cohost of The Amp Hour podcast, and teaches online courses on electronics.
So tell me, how did you get started with electronics? Was it the stereotypical “kid taking apart an alarm clock” thing, or was it later in life?
Chris Gammell: It was later in life. You know, I was a late bloomer in that regard. I took apart old cell phones and, you know, radios that we had around the house, but definitely never did much with them. My big thing was, you know, physics class in high school and get really into that, and I had some great professors throughout the time. And that kind of led into... Well, I like doing science. I like doing... You know, I like this kind of hands-on, learning how the physical world works and understanding how the equations kind of fit into the real world phenomena. But I didn't quite figure out how it was gonna all go together until I started thinking like, "Oh, the electronic side is obviously a big deal." This was... You know, I was in high school in the late '90s, and, you know, just kind of seeing the boom of...I guess that was a big boom in the e-commerce world. But I was really interested in electronic side of things.
Jayshree Seth: Well, let’s see, late 90s electronics would have been...gaming consoles? That kind of thing?
Chris Gammell: Yeah. I mean like Motorola RAZR phones you could think of as well. I mean that's a big thing.
Jayshree Seth: So, how did that initial interest turn into a career? What was your path?
Chris Gammell: Really traditional in the way that I knew I wanted to get into electronics. I was really interested in the hands-on stuff, though. So, I picked out a college that was really focused on doing co-ops and real-world training. And so, I went to Case Western Reserve University and studied electronics and spent, you know, seven months...three different times I spent seven months in industry, actually, like, not in school at the time. And I just love that. I love being able to learn from engineers and learn that hands-on stuff and learn how to actually put this knowledge out into the real world. And that was a big focus of mine.
Jayshree Seth: So more than education, you could almost say it was like an apprenticeship? Or perhaps an internship?
Chris Gammell: Not quite an apprenticeship. I mean, yeah, I guess so. It was like an extended internship. I think that's really the real thing. It was a way to see all the other stuff and to really gain context on what I needed to learn next, you know, going back to school. That was the real power of it is when I went back to school, I said, "Oh, well..." The most important things that I was learning was...or I needed were around interacting with other humans and being able to, you know, get my ideas across and communicate effectively. And then also, like, you know, certain topics within electronics were where I maybe didn't give enough attention at the beginning, I really started to dig into it and started to like some of that stuff.
Jayshree Seth: It’s interesting to hear you talk about these “soft skills,” the human relationship skills. We don’t hear that a lot when we talk about science. Do you feel that’s an important part of the equation?
Chris Gammell: Yeah. I mean, I think, you know, even my friends... So, I have some friends who are PhDs in biology and, you know, physics and they're professors and stuff like that. Even the people that are at the top echelon of doing research and doing science, like, if they're not able to communicate their ideas effectively, if they're not good writers and readers and even just simple things like emails, they really start to fall behind. And it's something that I've taken some interest in. Obviously, I love talking to people on my podcast and communicating and be able to get ideas across, but it's something that, from a professional standpoint as well, it's critical on a daily basis.
Jayshree Seth: Oh, I agree — like any other career, people skills are so crucial to success. Scientists still need to operate in the real world.
Chris Gammell: Yeah. I think it's interesting too, because, you know, like... So, engineering is a, you know, it's a subsection of science too, right? It's the applied science thing. And, you know, I think when I was in school and learning a lot of the scientific type of, you know, basics and, you know, building up my knowledge of, just, for example, like physics and learning, learning F=ma and similar things, you know, that's a very idealized version of it. And then, you know, as you move along in your career, you start to see some and more of the sloppy stuff that happens with it, right? You learn about, in that same example of physics, it's, you know, you learn about wind resistance as you're dropping a ball and you measure acceleration, and it's not actually 9.8 meters per second. You start to learn some of those other things that interact with your experiments that really start to really change and interact with the real world. And I feel like engineering is kind of a piece of that. But even, like I said, the communication piece, if you can't requisition the parts because you're not good at communicating with your coworkers, then you can't even get to the point where you drop that ball and do an experiment because you are unable to say what you needed in order to get the science done.
Jayshree Seth: It seems like you have the communication part figured out, especially on social media. By the way, I was surprised to see your twitter handle is @analoglife. We usually think of analog as the opposite of digital, right? Something more retro, maybe outdated...
Chris Gammell: So, when I was working as an engineer at a place called Keith Instruments, they do a lot of analog measurements. And so, that's analog....it's measuring the messy parts of the signals out in the world, the electrical signals. And so, if you think about digital versus analog, you know, a digital signal might be zero to five volts on an older system or an Arduino like a lot of people know, right? So, it's a signal switching between zero and five volts, but oftentimes it's not actually zero, and it's not actually five volts. And that's kind of the playing more in the analog realm of things. And so, again, it's kind of that real-world application. You know, an idealized version might be, "Yes, it's always exactly zero." And then, "Yes, it's always exactly five volts, and it toggles between the two."
But when you start looking at the analog signal, and you start to see, "Oh well, there's noise on top of that five volts," and you see that, "Oh well," you know, "as it's going from zero to five volts, it actually slews through these different voltages." And there was always problems associated with this. And so, really everything kind of comes back to analog. You know, when you're interacting with the real world, everything is analog at a certain level. But we can have these mental models that allow us to think in terms of digital or think in terms of, you know, higher level type of things.
Jayshree Seth: Oh, that’s interesting in terms of a metaphor — with digital as that perfect ideal, but the real, analog world is messy, a little harder to predict, right?
Chris Gammell: Yeah. I mean, I can't say that I'm... You know, I don't like when things go wrong, but I acknowledge it. And I think the real world is messy and kind of fun in that way. And I think that, you know, the world of analog in the realm of, you know, measuring... Again, this is very narrow in the term of measuring electronic circuits, like when I was talking about the scale of measurement, but, you know, that's what allows us to have things like, you know, digital cameras and temperature sensors that are out in the world. And, you know, anything that's interacting with the real world often has analog at least at the very beginning. And the world is messy, and I like to interact with it in some way like that.
Jayshree Seth: So, given how far electronics have advanced since the 90s, do you think there’s still value in pursuing electrical engineering as a hobby, in taking things apart and seeing how they work?
Chris Gammell: I definitely think so. I mean, I think that... You know, I see a lot of people that are kind of getting into the hobby and trying different things out. Common ones are just, "Hey, I wanna do something around my house. Maybe I wanna know when the dryer turns off, and I wanna do it remotely, and I didn't buy a, you know, $8,000 dryer. I bought just a regular dryer, and I wanna put a sensor on it and say that, 'Ding, the dryer's done,' and have it, you know, maybe send me a text message or something similar." That is very accessible for a lot of people. And I think the tools for doing that are simpler than ever, you know. Getting WiFi chip… WiFi-enabled chips are a couple of dollars these days. You know, microcontrollers are easier to program than ever and, you know, even sensors. You know, you wanna know the temperature that's outside. You can buy reliable sensors for pennies to dollars and actually hook them up and get things working, working with one another. And it's a great hobby. And that way, you can really start to interact with the real world using electronics.
Jayshree Seth: How would you recommend someone get started with electronics?
Chris Gammell: I think, you know, there's a lot of ones out there that are really flashy and I think that that's nice because it has this... As a human, I'm very... I say human. I'm really drawn to, you know, just blinking things in general. I think humans in general kind of respond to light and, you know, we're kind of evolved to have a quick attraction to things that are blinking and stuff like that. And so, I think blinking LED projects are a great way to get started with that. So, something like grabbing an Arduino off the shelf, using, you know, programmable LED strips you can, you know, light those up and do really interesting things. And there's... You know, so maybe you grab an Arduino, you grab some NeoPixels, which is the Adafruit brand of programmable LEDs. And, you know, there's code that allows you to interact with it right away.
And then there's even more advanced ones. One of my friends makes something called the PixelBlaze. That's basically a pre-programmed version that can also interact with blinking LEDs. And you can program in different patterns so that it's right out of the box. It's just looking awesome, and you can stick them on your house, or your Christmas tree, or, you know, an outfit that you're making and you're kinda ready to go right away.
Jayshree Seth: Oh yes, that’s another way people are tinkering with electronics now: Making costumes.
Chris Gammell: Yeah. The cosplayers are just... You know, they do really, really creative things. And I think that that's a whole other realm that has been opened up to people that are interested in electronics. You know, it might not be the most complex thing, but they wanna get a thing done. And I think that the hobbyist of old, you know, kind of really dug in and wanted to understand that the low-level stuff than understand stuff at the transistor level or maybe the logic gate level. And they're doing just for the sake of doing that a lot of times. Some of them were doing ham radio and similar things. But I think the people... You know, a lot of people these days, because electronics are so accessible, they just wanna do a thing. So, it might be, "Make my shoes light up," or, you know, "Make my Ironman costume," or, you know, "Make some, you know, blinking jewelry or something like that." There's a wide array of what people are doing that maybe not really difficult tasks by themselves, but they're doing it as an end goal. And I think that's a great entrance into doing electronics.
Jayshree Seth: It does seem like a good gateway to science: “All I wanted was to get my Iron Man helmet to open automatically, and suddenly I’m at MIT!”
Chris Gammell: Yeah. Exactly. And that's how it goes. I mean, I think... You know, I often talk about... I really love learning about education and educational methods and stuff like that. And I often talk about like dopamine squirts. You know, it's all about having these feedback cycles that get you confident enough that you can take that next step. When you think about learning electronics, that sounds like a really, really big thing. You think about all over the world, you know, you look at your iPhone or your Android device, and you're like, "Oh my goodness, I can never do this." But thinking about lighting up an LED is a good starting place and then maybe making programmable LED makes you kind of more interested in code. And then you think, "Oh, you know, if I did that, maybe I can make a circuit board, and if I made a circuit board maybe I can make a larger thing." And then eventually, you work your way up, and you start working with other people. At the end of the day, you know, you're working the same path that has led to something like an iPhone. Obviously, there's a lot more money invested, but, you know, working your way through there and getting those little squirts of dopamine each time something works, is a really important method for making sure that you continue in the hobby or the profession.
Jayshree Seth: That’s wonderful. So, we talk on the podcast a lot about the “scientific mindset,” the advantage of thinking like a scientist even when you’re not in the lab. So do you feel like your engineering mind benefits you outside of work?
Chris Gammell: You know, when I think about the things that allowed me to be successful in engineering and, you know, TBD on how successful those things are, it's all about persistence, right? And I think about my friends that are good at engineering as well and the best scientists I know, it's understanding process and then say, "I'm gonna trust this process, be persistent with it over time." And so, I could see, you know, that kind of same thing, that regularity and keeping track of my work and stuff like that, that's helped me, you know, from a mindset perspective and, you know, keeping a journal every day from... And that kind of also then feeds into, you know, remembering to go to the gym every day and things like that. And just kinda building routines and building positive feedback loops like I talked about. I think that that's probably the closest thing that it's kind of taken outside of the scientific/engineering mindset, which is building routines and then building out, you know, processes that allow me to succeed as a useful member of society.
Jayshree Seth: That makes a lot of sense! In a way, it’s all programming — electronics or even your own brain.
Chris Gammell: Yeah.
Jayshree Seth: So, tell me about the Amp Hour podcast. How did that come to be?
So, "The Amp Hour" started about nine years ago, and it's me, and my co-host is in Sydney, Australia. So, for the first six and a half years, we actually didn't meet in person. So, that's kind of unique in that way. I had been blogging for about three or four years prior to that, but I was getting a little sick of, like, writing all the time and I wanted to do something a little bit different, you know, maybe do some multimedia type stuff. And we actually met on Reddit. So, reddit.com is a, you know, a link site and there's a community there. And somebody had asked if there were any electronics podcasts out there. I personally looked around, saw that there was nothing out there. I tried recording one myself, it was terrible but I, you know, took the leap and posted it. And my co-host saw it. He's a YouTuber as well, and he said, "Hey, I've always wanted... I'm doing YouTube, but I've always wanted to do a radio show. How about we try this together?" And 9 years and 443 episodes later, here we are. We've talked to lots of great electronics people, people in the industry, people who are hobbyists, professionals, kind of all throughout the gamut. And you know, me and Dave also just talk to each other about the projects we're working on and, you know, the things we run into when we're... When we say electronics, usually we mean the custom electronics that we're working on and designing, but also the things that we see in the industry, how silicon manufacturing has changed things, how some of the tool chains have changed things, and how we can get better as electronics designers.
Jayshree Seth: That’s quite an achievement! So, thinking about electronics as a field of study — and I know it’s a broad one — but what are some major world problems that electrical engineering is trying to solve?
Chris Gammell: Yeah. I think the big thing is sensoring and monitoring and being able to act on that. But really, electrical engineering, I always see as a toolset. You know, often the best engineering projects or products don't really stand on their own. They're usually working with people that are experts in a different field area. So, as an example, I helped out on a project a while ago that was doing...it's called field kit. And that's a monitoring project that's trying to make science more accessible broadly. And so, basically, citizen scientists could take this kit and then use it to monitor, you know, a local water source or, you know, the temperature outside. But basically, it's flexible enough that it can be used over and over again by people with different needs in the world. They're all trying to monitor their environment, but it's a single way to make that accessible. And so, I thought that was a great example of being able to take a discipline like electrical engineering and then apply it to a wide range of environmental and zoological experts and the things they need to do in the world. So, that's one thing. I think also, like you mentioned, renewables.
I think another thing might be, like, renewable energy. You know, there's obviously a lot of stuff out there for taking solar, converting it, DC to AC as well. But, you know, you see electronics everywhere these days. So, it is kind of at least a part of every scientific endeavor, I feel. You know, like, I know people that are working at CERN and working on detecting particles, and I know people that are working at LED lighting and just trying to make lighting a little bit more efficient out in the world. So, it kind of spans the entire range. But that's the nice thing about electronics as well, is that, you know, if you get into it, you have a lot of options for where you wanna take your career.
Jayshree Seth: You know, last episode we talked to a disaster scientist, Mika McKinnon, and she told us how she uses these IoT-enabled sensors to study the earth, to predict and mitigate disasters. So in a very real way, it’s electrical engineering teaming up with specific scientific disciplines and actually saving lives…
Chris Gammell: Sure. Yeah. You know, I think the real thing when you think about data these days, data is such an important thing across all disciplines as well, right? And being able to collect that data at a certain point, like I said at the beginning, you know, the real messy world of things. You need to be able to translate that messy real world into bits, and then the bits effectively are gathered together, and that becomes data at large. And then a lot of scientists are very good at processing that data either through big data methods or, you know, even just Python scripting, stuff like that. But at a certain point, yeah, you need to gather that data from the real world. And usually that interface from the digital world to the real analog messy world, that's the kind of the place that I like to play in because there are sensors in there and there's conductivity, and you have to... You know, maybe you're hooked up over WiFi, or Laura, or cellular, or even satellite these days. It's just an exciting field to be in.
Jayshree Seth: What, specifically, in your field is exciting to you right now?
Chris Gammell: You know, I have a weird look at it, I suppose. It's not like, you know, cutting-edge, you know, some people would probably say things like 5G, and AI, and blockchain, and IoT and all that, buzzwordy type things. I'm actually really excited about opensource in general. I use an opensource program called KiCad. I helped to run a conference here in Chicago a couple of...like, last month, I suppose. And then that's how I design circuit boards, is using this opensource software. And so, the opensource software enables me to do my job. I see other things that are opensource as well, though. So, there's a project called Project IceStorm. And that's basically an opensource tool chain for what's called FPGAs. It's "Field Programmable Gate Arrays." And that's allows you to do really, really fast custom computing and then reconfigure that same piece of silicon to do something completely different within minutes. And that allows people to do things like, you know, radio telescopes and, like I said, with CERN and all that. Basically, anyone who is doing really, really custom fast logic and needing to do signal chains that are through that, they can use now this open source tool chain. So, it's making it more accessible, it's making it more transparent, and it's giving people more choice. That means ultimately the price is gonna drop as well around chips, and just making it more accessible it means that we're gonna be able to do higher-level computing-type things on an easier basis because of opensource. And so, that's kind of the trend that I keep seeing is opensource kind of opens up more and more doors. There's obviously been a lot of proprietary tools in the past, but now opensource is kind of taking those over and then making them even more accessible.
Jayshree Seth: That’s definitely an exciting thing - it’s the democratization of data, of access, really. Wrapping it up, one more quick question: What do you like the most about science?
Chris Gammell: That it self-propagates. But it self-propagates through education, right? And I really enjoy being part of that process. And so, I like, in general, like, science and engineering. You know, it's not just a story that's being told, it's also verifiable, right? You know, someone doesn't say to me, "F=ma," and you know, they say, "Go drop a ball over there and, you know, grab a stopwatch and see how long it takes," right? It's this verifiable thing, and that's a really easy way to kind of keep the story going if you wanna call it a story, I suppose. But it's, you know, this thing that you can, again and again, you can test theories, and revise them, and pass that knowledge on to other people that they can then, again, go and test your theory and revise it. And in that way, I think it's just a really powerful method to, you know, impact the world at a much larger level. It's not just one person doing one thing and coming up with some crazy idea. It's being able to spread the knowledge around and then having lots of people verify on their own and build up their own models and then go and verify those in the world and, hopefully, you know, make something else, and change the world in a better way as well. And then it kind of self-propagates in that way.
And especially in a world of, like, increasingly loud voices and, you know, people that wanna, you know, either follow or be followed. Science doesn't really care about that stuff. It's more of a, you know, broad-based, "Go and check it for yourself. Go check the work, go read the numbers, go do your own equations," that kind of thing. And in that way, it's very powerful.
Jayshree Seth: It is indeed. Chris, thanks so much for sitting in today.
Chris Gammell: Yeah. Well, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Jayshree Seth: Science is the foundation that modern society is built on. The more technologically-driven we become, the more important it is to understand what science is and why it matters.
A scientific mindset is more than inventing new polymer chains or developing new types of batteries — thinking like a scientist can make you smarter, a better citizen of the Earth, and, as our guest demonstrates, perhaps even a happier, healthier human being.
Thanks for listening to Science Champions. Learn more about the current state of science at 3m.com/scienceindex. And subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.