It was a triumphant story that was first published by the Northport Patch back on 5 August 2011. Then, the tiny community web site of the tiny town located on the northwest corner of Long Island, New York announced that then 13-year old Northport Middle School student Aidan Dwyer had applied a mathematical principle found in trees that could improve the performance of solar panels and had been granted a provisional U.S. patent for an invention stemming from his insight:
Aidan Dwyer has accomplished more in his life than most people three times his age. He sails, he golfs-- and he is a patented innovator of solar panel arrangements.
Dwyer applied the Fibonacci sequence, a mathematical principle widely occurrent in nature, to solar panel arrays in a months-long backyard experiment. He found that small solar panels arranged according to the Fibonacci sequence found in tree branches produced 20 percent more energy than flat panel arrays, and prolonged the collection window by up to two and a half hours.
Most remarkably, the elegant tree design out-performed the flat panel array during winter exposure, when the sun is at its lowest point, by up to 50 percent.
The feel-good story quickly built steam over the next two weeks, when it blew up into the big time as a number of mainstream media outlets, including Popular Science, heralded 13-year old Aidan Dwyer's achievement. The popular environmental news site Earthtechling offered the following lead for its story on the 13-year old's naturist's insight and invention:
One would be excused for suspecting that Aidan Dwyer, said to be 13, is in fact a small, very young-looking, 37-year-old college-educated con-man of the highest order. Such is not the case though for what the young Long Island lad has accomplished in a feat typically associated with much older individuals. As reported on the Patch community website out of Northport, N.Y., Aidan has used the Fibonacci sequence to devise a more efficient way to collect solar energy, earning himself a provisional U.S. patent and interest from "entities" apparently eager to explore commercializing his innovation.And you're wondering what the Fibonacci sequence is. Aidan explains it allon a page on the website of the American Museum of Natural History, which recently named him one of its Young Naturalist Award winners for 2011. The awards go to students from middle school through high school who have investigated questions they have in the areas of biology, Earth science, ecology and astronomy.
The feel-good bubble for solar power enthusiasts burst just days later when it became clear that 13-year old had made mistakes in his science work backing his invention, which if corrected, would almost entirely diminish any advantage that 13-year old Aidan Dwyer's invention might provide for deploying solar panel technology. Earthtechling summarized the rapid debunking that followed the previous triumphant stories:
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.
Keeping in mind that it took the effort of people with considerably more scientific knowledge and experience to even detect the errors that 13-year old Aidan Dwyer made, it is perhaps not so surprising that a 13-year old made mistakes in his scientific investigation. People who do real science in real life often go down what turn out to be blind alleys on the path to discovery all the time. Failure is both an integral and illuminating part of the scientific process.
But while the story of how 13-year old Aidan Dwyer's invention turned out to be one of those blind alleys, a more remarkable story is that the original story of 13-year old Aidan Dwyer's insight and invention refuses to die. Instead, scientifically-illiterate environmental activists are continually recycling it! Here's a quick sampling:
|Recycling a 13-Year Old's "Solar Breakthrough"|
|17 October 2012||Fibonacci Department: 13-year-old spirals tree branching into solar panels|
|21 March 2013||13-Year Old Replicates Fibonacci Sequence to Harness Solar Power|
|23 September 2013||13-Year Old Replicates Fibonacci Sequence to Harness Solar Power|
|21 November 2013||13-Year-Old Replicates Fibonacci Sequence in Trees|
|29 December 2013||13-year-old investor cracks the secret of trees to revolutionize solar energy|
|30 December 2013||13 Year Old Invents Fibonacci Solar Panel Designs|
|12 March 2014||This Boy Walked Into A Forest. What He Found Could Change Mankind's Future|
|14 April 2014||Biomimicry - Tree Solar Panels|
|9 June 2014||13-Year Old Replicates Fibonacci Sequence to Harness Solar Power|
It's always the same story too. It's as if the community of environmental activists are too scientifically illiterate to even be curious to find out more about it, much less what can be found on the first page of Google search results.
But do you know what the best part of all this recycling is? Aidan Dwyer never gets any older! Even though it's three years later (at this writing in 2014), he's *always* 13-years old!