[Editor’s Note: In considering the fallout from this, let’s keep one thing in mind please – this is a bright 13-year-old who has a promising future in the clean energy world. Let’s encourage him to keep at that, regardless of what issues arise from the buzz around his work.]
Welcome to the digital age, Aidan Dwyer, where a hero becomes a bum in a blink of an eye and you need a neck brace to protect against media whiplash. One day, credulous news outlets – including the one you’re reading now – were glomming onto 13-year-old Aidan’s award-winning science project and advertising it to the world as a solar-power breakthrough. Now, a veritable cottage industry of Dwyer-debunkers has sprung up, and his work is being called way off base.
“Was Our Beloved 13-Year-Old Solar Power Genius Just Proven Wrong?” asks Gizmodo. “Why 13-year-old’s solar power ‘breakthrough’ won’t work,” writes Tuan C. Nguyen on Smart Planet. “Blog Debunks 13-Year-Old Scientist’s Solar Power Breakthrough,” says The Atlantic Wire. “This is where bad science starts,” headlines an exhaustive, nearly 4,000-word takedown of Aidan (and, even more pointedly, the media who grabbed his story and ran with it) on the No One’s Listening blog.
Oddly enough, the blog that got the ball rolling in refuting Aidan’s claim that a solar array modeled after an occurrence in nature called the Fibonacci sequence was more efficient than traditional solar arrays, has taken down its post, although a cached version lives on (that’s another reality of the digital age: nothing ever totally disappears).
Among the key problems with Aidan’s report, it appears, is that he wrongly used voltage as a measure of the power output from his solar panels. In his Smart Planet story, Nguyen interviews UC San Diego’s Jan Kleissl, a professor of environmental engineering, who says had Aidan actually measured the current, he would have gotten much less impressive results.
Nguyen writes that Kleissl “conceded that Dwyer’s arrangement offers a slight advantage over standard panel arrangements in the morning hours – when a few of the panels would be in position to catch more sunlight,” but “was quick to point out that a standard solar array would produce a lot more energy during the afternoon and overall because the panels will be facing the sun more directly.”
Nguyen’s piece and all the others in the second, more careful wave of Aidan assessments contain many more penetrating criticisms of the lad’s methods and techniques – enough to constitute an emphatic reminder that (a) he is only 13 years old; and (b) we media who report on scientific breakthroughs, particularly ones not published in peer-reviewed journals, need to give them much more scrutiny than we often do.