Aidan Dwyer Solar News Gets Reality Check

[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.

aidan dwyer, solar breakthrough debunked

image via American Museum of Natural History

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.

Sports columnist, newspaper desk guy, website managing editor, wine-industry PR specialist, freelance writer—Pete Danko’s career in media has covered a lot of terrain. The constant along the way has been a fierce dedication to knowing the story and getting it right. Danko's work has appeared in Wired, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Barry-Turner/100000153816879 Barry Turner

      Well I for one hope that he will carry on with his research. I get really peeved when so called ‘experts’ try and tear downu00a0another’su00a0research from the comfort of their armchair. Having made no attempt to recreate the original.nnJust remember u00a0this famous quoteu00a0u201cAnyone who expects a source of power from the transformation of the atom is talkingu00a0moonshineu201d. Ernestu00a0Rutherfordand look how wrong this so called ‘expert’ was

    • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/KVBCXXDK7LUBCD272MGCK5KKBU PC

      Why are trees trees? Why are they efficient at doing what they do? Do solar panels collect more energy per sq inch as a flat panel or would it be better to have a million little solar panels placed in patterns like leaves on a tree? Would it be better if the tiny solar panels are shaped like leaves? No offense to the little guy, but I’ve already seen ideas like this and they aren’t better. His calculations are incorrect. The output was wrong, back to the drawing board. Keep up the good work

    • http://twitter.com/robotbugs Simon Winder

      You may find interesting my blog post about this where I discuss both the positive and negative aspects of this idea and outline some exciting new technology… http://impressivemachine.com

    • Curefx

      Looks like he had a peak at the Solarbotanic website….

    • http://www.facebook.com/mary.c.mcdonald.73 Mary C McDonald

      For a 13 year old kid to implement the Fibonacci sequence and incorporate it into an emerging technology is not only amazing but also something to be greatly admired. Most kids his age are sitting around playing video games. Corporations pour huge bucks into technology for entertainment and not enough into helping this country divorce itself from its dependency on oil. We need to encourage more kids in this direction and reward them for their efforts, whether they achieve dramatic or small results. Aidan’s results show that his fundamental idea is a bright one, that his premise is a great first step and opens the door to greater possibilities for harnessing energy that is renewable, clean and available. Aidan, keep up the fine work! Shame on the rest of you “grown ups for tearing down a kind instead of applauding his work. Jealous much?

      • Pete

        Agreed. His work, like all scientific work, should be scrutinized and critiqued, but with encouragement and respect (as some have done).

    • Andy Beames

      So sad to see so much webspace being used to discredit this kids work yet so little being used to praise and encourage it.
      If the naysayers can do better, please let them feel free to try, and they had better not dare complain when their work is torn apart, hopefully by a 13-year old.