A Youngster's Bright Idea Is Something New Under the Sun
By SOPHIA HOLLANDER
NORTHPORT, N.Y.—A new way of collecting solar energy has polarized scientists around the world and ignited fierce debate on the Internet, where the innovator in question has been called everything from an alien to the agent of a global conspiracy.
13-year-old Aidan Dwyer developed a new way to collect solar energy, and along the way sparked a fierce debate among scholars and scientists. He joins the News Hub to tell his story. Photo: Claudio Papapietro for The Wall Street Journal
Maybe a better title would be an intellectual Hannah Montana. That's because the scientist, Aidan Dwyer, is 13 years old.
This past summer, Aidan won a national science competition with what seemed to be a bright idea: His research appeared to show that solar panels arrayed like the leaves on a tree collect sunlight more efficiently than traditional setups.
Many people on the Web called the Long Island teenager a "genius" who had achieved a true "breakthrough" in solar power. Others praised him for proving that nature's own designs are superior to man's.
But there was one little problem: To prove his hypothesis, Aidan had measured the wrong thing.
As readers figured out the mistake, the Internet went supernova. Commenters and bloggers attacked Aidan with vitriol usually saved for political enemies and the Kardashians. Blogs decried his experiment as "bad science" and "impossible nonsense." Someone called him "an alien—a cool one, though."
Aidan and his family watched in amazement as strangers around the world debated his intelligence and abilities, as well as his opinion of subjects generally beyond the scope of a suburban boy his age: politics, evolution and the state of modern society, for example.
He got some constructive advice, said Aidan's mother, Maureen. "Then there were people who were just—"
"Haters," Aidan chimed in with a grin.
The legitimacy of his original idea remains unsettled, though scientists are skeptical. Aidan is now revamping his experiment as he maneuvers around homework, sleepovers and the odd curfew violation.
But there is no disputing that he has become a star. Many in the scientific community are championing his intellectual curiosity and graceful ability to weather an Internet firestorm, making him a hot speaker at events around the world.
"It looks like there is some validity to what he's come up with. But even if there wasn't any validity, I wanted to give this young man the opportunity to sort of say, 'Here's what I learned and here's what I did,'" said Andrew Zolli, the executive director of PopTech, a nonprofit organization focused on innovation.
In October, Aidan got a standing ovation from more than 500 people at PopTech's annual innovation conference in Maine after discussing his work and touching on the controversy.
He has been invited to address 300 undergraduate engineering students at New York University in the spring. He has received a provisional patent for his research. He has had, and declined, friend requests on Facebook from venture capitalists.
After viewing one of his talks on YouTube, organizers of World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi invited Aidan to participate—and offered to fly his family over, too. He is scheduled to speak at the event's opening ceremony this month.
"Our mandate is to look for great minds, talents, technology innovations around the world," said Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, the CEO of Masdar, a company owned by the Abu Dhabi government that founded and hosts the conference. "We need thousands of Aidans to help transform the way we produce and consume energy."
On a recent afternoon, Aidan and his parents admitted they were somewhat baffled by the attention for a project that began two years ago on a winter hiking trip through the Catskill Mountains.
Aidan, then 11, stared at the tree branches denuded of leaves and noticed they looked alike; he wondered why. Back home, his parents encouraged him to research the subject. Google searches uncovered that a mathematical concept called the Fibonacci number sequence underlies the structure of tree branches.
His parents had been hoping to install solar panels on their Long Island house, but their yard was too small and their roof wasn't suitable. There was, however, enough room for a tree. Perhaps, Aidan postulated, trees arranged their branches to improve the collection of sunlight. If he used the Fibonacci sequence to imitate that design with solar panels replacing leaves, maybe the structure could fit his family's limited space, look pretty—and power the house.
He did chores to earn the money to buy about $75 worth of materials. With help from his father—and after many mistakes—Aidan ended up with two models: a traditional flat-panel array and a tree-shaped solar collector designed to mimic the branch sequence of an oak tree. Over the course of months he compared measurements. To his delight, the tree structure's numbers were higher.
Exuberantly, he submitted the results to the Young Naturalist Awards, a national contest run by the American Museum of Natural History. Of 700 entries, his was picked as one of 12 winners.
"Then," Aidan said with a slight smile, "things got out of hand."
As the report went viral, attacked and championed in hundreds of comments, museum officials became worried. "We do think it's really important that information that we put forth is scientifically accurate," said Rosamond Kinzler, senior director of science education at the museum. They were also concerned for Aidan, she said.
Critics had a point: Aidan had recorded voltage, when he needed to calculate power. It is a serious flaw, explained Jan Kleissl, an assistant professor of environmental engineering at the University of California, San Diego.
Imagine a water pipe, he said. Voltage is equivalent to water pressure. Current is the size of the pipe. Power is equal to the flow of water out of the pipe, which depends on both variables.
Dr. Kleissl praised Aidan's work, but added that even if Aidan had measured the right variables, "I'm certain that he will not find that his arrangement is better," he said. "I think it's a romantic ideal that nature has many lessons for us, and there are a few cases where this is true, but in the majority of cases we could teach nature, in a way, how to be better, faster."
On a recent afternoon, Aidan showed a visitor his newest model, tweaked to respond to his critics: a towering seven-foot tree form adorned with solar panels and painted green. He is now measuring current and power. So far, he said, the tree continues to outperform the traditional panel. "I'm thinking that it could actually change the world."