Blog Debunks 13-Year-Old Scientist's Solar Power Breakthrough

It asks: how did this become international news?

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A 13-year-old who, observing trees, takes it upon himself to read up on the Fibonacci series and propose a way to better utilize solar energy is the feel-good story at its finest. So naturally, media outlets including us have been sharing the tale of seventh grader Aidan Dwyer's solar power "breakthrough" science project. But according to the blog The Capacity Factor, the media has been getting way ahead of itself.

In short, here is the story of young Dwyer's science finding: He was observing trees, and noticed how the branches held a spiral pattern, and wondered what would be the use of that. Looking at the Fibonacci series, which describes spirals, he also noticed that tree leaves adhered to the spiral sequence. This led him to propose arranging solar panels like oak trees leaves, a manner which would be 20 to 50 percent more efficient, energy-wise. The American Museum of Natural History rewarded him with a Young Naturalist award.

So far, so great. But The Capacity Factor, clearly unhappy with its role of the Grinch who must squash an adolescent's science discovery, has written a post called "In which hopelessly inept journalists reduce me to having to debunk a school science project." (The post as of this moment is temporarily unavailable, though we link to the cache.) The post indicates about Dwyer's discovery: "This is, I'm sad to say, clear nonsense. I'll take this in two parts: one, why his experiment is, unfortunately, completely broken (sorry again). Two, why the imagined result is impossible nonsense."

Part one: "Broken Experiment."

Most importantly, by mistake he did not measure power outputs from the solar cells. Instead he measured voltage, without a load attached ("open circuit"). They are barely related -- in solar cells, voltage is actually almost a constant, independent of power.

Demonstrating the difference with a series of equations and graphs, it comes to this conclusion: "End result: measuring the solar cells' [open-circuit voltage] over time, and adding them up, is garbage data, and has nothing to do with energy production."

Part two: "Unreasonably Theory."

The blog also indicates that the theory behind the discovery itself is problematic: "I'm not sure I understand the confusion by which people think there could be some advantage, to orienting panels at sub-optimal angles. That somehow combining sub-optimal panels, together, makes them generate more energy in the net." It then goes to demonstrate via equations that "if the individual angles in the 'tree' are worse then the 45°-tilted south-facing panels in the flat array (they obviously are), so is their combination."

Finger-pointing: It's not the seventh grader's fault, it's the media's fault.

The blog does not blame the seventh grader for imperfect science, but actually the news media for blowing up this story and putting a 13-year-old into the spotlight for an impressively ambitious but unfortunately incorrect claim. It ends with this open question: "How did this confused science project became international news?"

If there's any further scientific analysis that should be taken into account here, please let us know.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.