January 5, 2005     Los Gatos, California Since 1881
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Photograph by George Sakkestad
Simon Quellen Field lays back in a hammock that hangs across a geodesic dome he made, which houses chickens and a rooster. The hens are featured live on the Internet 24 hours a day via a web camera.
Gizmo Guy: Los Gatan is half-Indiana Jones, half-mad scientist
By Lisa Toth
He's geeky enough to make science toys and daring enough to climb and repel from giant trees to make a tree house. Combine Indiana Jones and a mad scientist and somewhere in the middle is Simon Quellen Field.

At age 50, Field is the president and CEO of Kinetic MicroScience, a science toy business he started that offers the parts and instructions to create fun, educational science toys suitable for both adults and children.

Field also works full-time as a software engineer, writing computer programs at Google's headquarters Mountain View. He lives in the Los Gatos mountains, about two miles up Montevina Road off Highway 17 on a homestead known as the Lakeview Bird Farm which overlooks Lexington Reservoir. It's a typical American home—with a few unusual twists.

Field lives with his wife, Kathleen Mandis, and daughter Jenna Mandis, 27, a science teacher in Hillsborough who previously studied ants in South Africa. Their home is powered by a 5-kilowatt solar panel on the hillside, thanks to Kathleen's profession of designing residential solar electric systems at Akeena Solar in Los Gatos.

"It's running our electric meter backwards by day and forward at night," says Field, adding that the couple's goal at the end of the year is to owe the electric company only about $10.

They custom-built their home in 1995 because they loved the outdoors. The estate boasts hardwood floors, a wood-burning stove, and large windows featuring spectacular views and a remoteness from the hustle and bustle of the Silicon Valley.

But even though it's isolated, the property is far from quiet with Kathleen's large aviary—adjacent to the house; it's filled with screeching, exotic Australian grass parakeets, Peruvian birds and even a caged python. In addition to Jenna's garden, there's also a geodesic dome which houses chickens and a rooster, fittingly named Lucky.

"This is the geodesic dome that I designed on my computer built of electrical conduit," Field says. "It's made out of triangles so it's extremely strong. If you try to pull on this [conduit], it's like a brick wall."

The feathered fowl laying their eggs and romping about inside the dome are projected live via a web camera 24 hours a day on the Internet. Field says he initially came up with the idea to have the camera on the chicks when they were first born, so he could check in on them and watch them while he was at work or from his home office.

Field, a tall, bearded man with a long ponytail, often lays back in a hammock strung across the inside of the dome and lets the chickens climb across his stomach. He grew up in Southern California, and earned his bachelor's degree in computer science education and information systems from San Diego State University.

"I used to go to the San Diego Zoo all the time, and there were chickens running around," Field says, as he gathers up an armload of fresh eggs. "I wanted to have a bunch of pretty chickens running around all the time too."

Field came to work for a company in the Silicon Valley that designed the first spreadsheet, and met his wife in the process. He's worked in writing compilers—programs that read computer programs and covert them into machine language—and has been at Google for a little more than a year.

Stacks of magazines including Scientific American, Nature, Science and American Scientist deck the coffee table in Field's living room, and swinging chairs hang from the wraparound porch and off trees on the grounds. Plants grow down from the exposed beams on home's high-ceilings, and a chess board serves as an end table. Corky the African gray parrot hangs out in the kitchen on a branch, while Petey the dog roams the property.

"Kids love it here," Field says. "We have big parties, and they play with the birds and the snakes and the dogs and the swings."

Field also set up broadband Internet access and loves being able to take his laptop anywhere on the 20-acre property. His neighbors love him because he distributes access to the Internet for free, allowing his neighbors to surf the web at three megabits per second. Of course, there are also science toys and gadgets all over the house, such as levitating magnets and laser radios. Magnetic zip rods are tacked to the refrigerator and a three-penny radio and a hydrogen fuel cell that generates electricity sit on the kitchen table.

"Since I was a kid, I've been just fascinated with science," Field says. "I'm sure that's not unusual in this valley."

Field says he's always enjoyed making little science toys, and about five years ago decided to market some of his ideas for people to buy and make themselves at home.

"Kids can make them. They work the first time, and they work well," Field says.

Field makes more money from his science toys business than he does at Google. He says sales tend to go up during the school year science fair season and at Christmas. During the holiday season, he brings in about $8,000 a month from science toys alone.

Field has put together about 50 projects over the last five years, and although some aren't his own original inventions, they are all unique. One of Field's favorites is the film can cannon, where with a blast of Binaca and the spark of a lighter, a plastic film can barrel is sent shooting into the air.

"Some of them I just invented because they would be neat," says Field, joking as he put on a pair of magnet earrings.

Another invention—the gauss rifle—has the power to launch a steel marble that can knock a soda can off the edge of the table. The balls are attracted to magnets and gain speed as they are released, hitting each other and launching the steel ball off the end of the rifle. The rifle, with shipping, is about $31 for all the parts. Another experiment, a plastic hydrogen bomb, isn't as dangerous as it sounds because it explodes water.

All the parts to assemble Field's science toys can be purchased through kits off his website. But many of the materials used to make his gizmos can also be found at local hardware stores. There are step-by-step instructions about how to assemble the toys featured on his website and in his book, Gonzo Gizmos: Projects & Devices to Channel Your Inner Geek. The book, published by the Chicago Review Press in December 2003, can be purchased online.

Field says if someone were to type the word "science toys" into the Google search engine, his website is the first to be listed and linked. Home schooling programs and parents often purchase his toys as school projects for children, and various universities and even NASA have a link to his website.

"It's great fun," he says. "I get email every day from kids who are doing a science project and need a question answered. They are so happy when they get it to work."

Los Gatos resident John Lekashman and his son, Andrew, a sophomore at Los Gatos High School, purchased the wooden film can cannon and hydrogen bomb toy parts from Field's website.

"The science principals are there, interwoven with real experience that people enjoy seeing," John says. "His projects tend to remove the dry seriousness of some science teaching, and make it something fascinating."

Andrew added he thought Field's toys are aimed at people from about age 8 to 90.

"They are very educational unless the dad ends up doing all the work, as it is in most cases," Andrew says. "I would and have recommended his site to many people and I bought his book as a birthday present to my friend. It is a really cool website, and these toys are definitely worth making again."

More than half of Field's sales are within the United States, but he says his toys have been shipped to Australia and across Europe. Since his website is written in English, Field says most of his customers are from predominantly English-speaking countries. Field contracts with a company in Connecticut that packs and ships the kits for him. When someone buys a toy kit off Field's website, an email is sent to the kiting company and to Field, and the kit is made and shipped. Field says he has the toy business running itself.

So in his spare time with some climbing gear, Field and his daughter, who is an avid rock climber, built a one-of-a-kind, two-story tree house that's even decorated with Christmas lights and a lantern for nighttime social events. Field, who is also president of the Montevina Homeowners Association, says he often hosts meetings at his house, and the tree house is a highlight of the home tour.

The tree house features a dining room table and plastic chairs. It's about 32 feet off the ground. But to access it, visitors must first cross a rickety, 110-foot-long suspension bridge made of air craft cable and Redwood planks. Field says a healthy fear of heights is a good trait. He adds they've actually had about 30 people on the bridge at one time, even though his dog, Petey, is afraid to go all the way across it.

"Kathleen and I both love to come out here on a hot summer's day with some books, sodas, cookies and a picnic basket and just hang out," he says.

They hang out—literally. There is a hammock tied from the trees, and a giant cargo net is stretched beneath it. Field says he's so in love with his property, he's planning to keep hanging out for years to come.

For more information, visit www.scitoys.com or email Simon Quellen Field at simon@scitoys.com. To check out his treehouse, visit http://www.scitoys.com/svliving/living.html. The live web cam inside his geodesic dome featuring the chickens can be viewed at www.nakedchicksontheinternet.com and more information about his house is available at http://www.birdfarm.org.

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Gizmo Guy: Los Gatan is half-Indiana Jones, half-mad scientist
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