This is where bad science starts

This was originally published at my personal “No One’s Listening” blog, but I have decided to re-open my Optimiskeptic blog, and use this as the inauguration post. Unfortunately, I do not know how to transfer the original comments over, but you can find them here. They are helpful in clarifying and correcting some things I wrote in the blog. There is a much better comment system integrated into this blog, so I hope that helps a little.

I recently read this Gizmodo article that questioned whether or not the results of a 13-year-old kid, Aidan’s, science experiment was properly debunked.  Aidan’s science experiment is noteworthy for three reasons: (1) He claimed to have increased the efficiency of solar cell power generation by simply arranging them in a Fibonacci  (Golden Ration) pattern copied from the leafing pattern of plants found in nature, (2) his findings, published as an essay, received a “Young Naturalist Award” from the American Museum of Natural History (and a provisional patent, no less), and (3) this was reported on and praised as “genius” and a “breakthrough” by several noteworthy magazines such as Poplar Science, Slashdot, and The Atlantic Wire.

So here’s the problem. Aidan did not actually discover a more efficient way to convert solar energy into power as he claimed and these numerous publications reported. In fact, Aidan’s essay, while extremely well written, contains methodological flaws and incorrect conclusions. This rebutted published on blogspot by The Capacity Factor (and then subsequently removed) correctly and thoroughly explains why Aidan’s findings are inaccurate.  However, the Gizmodo article I read stated:

“Many of you in the comments remarked that 13-year-old Aidan Dwyer’s breakthrough was nothing new. Fair enough. But it’d be different if someone totally disproved it. One blogger claims to have done it. Can I get an expert in here?


NOW! I am no expert, so I can’t make any assertions as to the veracity of Mr. Blogspot’s claims. Graphs looks great, but what do you guys think?

Even The Atlantic Wire‘s article about the debunking did not provide much further explanation or analysis. It simply reported the facts of the story: Kid is praised for solar power “breakthrough.” Blog debunks findings. Here is a summary of the blog’s findings. Blog blames media for the mess.

Of course, I guess it is acceptable/safe for The Atlantic Wire to report the way it did by simply reporting the facts and to not interject with opinion or commentary.  However, Gizmodo articles, like the one I read, are specifically written in a commentary/opinion style.  Therefore, I was dismayed that Giz writer, Kwame Opam, felt that he needed to be an expert to verify The Capacity Factor’s findings.

You don’t need to be an expert to verify that Aidan’s findings are incorrect. I’ll admit, The Capacity Factor’s blog post was certainly a bit overlaiden with techno-jargon and can seem complicated and difficult to understand. But the flaws in Aidan’s science experiment are actually quite simple. They are so simple, in fact, that someone at the American Museum of Natural History should have noticed them. To be fair, the award might have simply been for his writing style and the fact that he praises nature, but for some reason I don’t buy that: “Young Naturalist Award” seems to imply the award is for a scientific achievement, not an essay-writing one.

Or someone at Popular Science, The Atlantic Wire, Slashdot, or Gizmodo should have noticed the flaws with Aidan’s work, yet it seems that they either glossed over the essay or did not understand what was wrong with it. In fact, any lay person with a basic understanding of science or 15 minutes of time to do a few Google searches (as I did for this blog post) and re-aquatint themselves with what they (hopefully) learned in high school should have caught the flaws in Aidan’s paper. Yet, not only did none of these media outlets stumble upon these flaws, even those reporting on the expressly admitted that they still did not understand the reasoning.

This would seem to me why so much bad science passes for good science these days. Please allow me to lay out my case, and perhaps hopefully re-explain The Capacity Factor’s debunking so that it can be understood by all the non-experts out there:

1. Nature generally doesn’t achieve maximum efficiency.

Nature usually operates by finding efficient minimums. That is, traits found in nature naturally develop and survive as long as they are the bare minimum necessary to survive – not the efficient maximum.  Nature can be extremely inefficient. It is faulty to assume that trees have a pattern of leafing that maximize their sunlight exposure. Rather, it would be correct to assume that trees have developed a pattern that give them the minimum necessary amount of sunlight exposure to survive long enough to reproduce. That, however, is not efficiency.

From Aidan’s essay:

I now had my first piece of the puzzle but it did not answer the question, Why do trees have this pattern?

Good science always starts with good research. See what others have done in the past, then find out where they went wrong, right, or can be improved upon. Aidan did excellent research about the history of the Fibonacci sequence, and Charles Bonnet’s observations of the sequence existing in tree branch growth. However, he did not appear to research the answer to his actual question: Why do trees have this (Fibonacci) pattern?

Aidan correctly notes that Fibonacci numbers appear almost everywhere in nature: Galaxies, moth wings, seashells, finger bones, Saturn’s rings, pine cones, honey bee colonies, etc. A few good articles on this can be found at: HowStuffWorks.com, World-Mysteries.com, University of Chicago’s Prof. Narain’s Golden Ratio Page, and MathIsFun.com. MathIsFun.com explains the answer to Aidan’s question best. In summary, the Golden Ratio is an irrational number, thus creating an ever expanding spiral pattern with few gaps.

The quick and easy answer is that the Golden Ratio is a pattern that naturally reveals itself in things that are growing. As MathIsFun.com put it:

Leaves, branches and petals can grow in spirals, too.

Why? So that new leaves don’t block the sun from older leaves, or so that the maximum amount of rain or dew gets directed down to the roots.

And here is where Aidan began to go wrong. Over time, plants grow. New branches and leaves are constantly forming and need to do so in such a way that they don’t harm previously existing ones. Solar panels don’t grow.  They are designed, arranged, and set up by humans at one time and don’t change in size, structure, or arrangement ever again unless someone comes along and changes them.

Aidan observed that Oak trees branch out in a Fibonacci pattern. But it is not necessarily to maximize sunlight exposure. Miximizing sunlight exposure doesn’t explain seashells, galaxies, or pine-cones. Rather, the Fibonacci sequence is a growth pattern. It is found in things that grow all over the place. You see, Aidan failed to factor in “constant changes over time” as the reason, thus setting himself up for failure with a faulty experiment.

If, like solar cells, plants just deployed themselves and didn’t grow from a tiny sappling to a gigantic tree, they would not maximize sunlight exposure by arranging themselves in the Fibonacci pattern as Aidan incorrectly assumed.

2. Optimal orientation is deductively derived using very few (and all possible) variables and therefore cannot be improved upon.

Inductive reasoning is a type of intuitive logic that involves observation. Observation is highly susceptible to misinterpretation. Deductive reasoning, however, involves provable mathematical constants: The conclusion always follows the premises. Inductive logic would be like looking at the heights of three men and noting which one is tallest and shortest based on simple observation. Deductive reasoning would be using math to determine the same thing: A > B, B > C, therefore, A > C.

Aidan decided to perform an inductive experiment to compare the efficiency of different arrangements of solar panels.  There is only one problem: This has already been mathematically proven using geometry and algebra, and no amount of observation will improve upon that math.

Aidan’s experiment compared solar cells arranged in a Fibonacci pattern like an Oak Tree, and compared the output to the optimum orientation of Solar Panels. Had Aidan understood why there is an optimum orientation for solar panels, he would have been able to conclude that it is mathematically impossible to improve upon this design. MACS Lab Inc., an environmental, health, and safety consulting service, explains the math behind optimum orientation pretty well on its website.

Basically, there are two factors in determining optimality: Latitude, and time of year. The goal of optimum orientation is to have fixed solar panels face the sun as directly as possible, allowing them to gather the maximum amount of sun rays taking into account the movement of the sun across the sky during a given day.

This orientation is called optimal because it produces a maximum exposure to the sun’s rays. This is mathematically impossible to be improved upon.  You cannot out-max a mathematically maximized number. Any deviation from the optimal angle will produce inferior results.

3. Increasing the number of something generally doesn’t change the outcome.

This is the most fundamental flaw with Aidan’s experiment, and the first thing everyone should have noticed. If solar cell A is placed at an angle that maximizes its own individual power production, and solar cell B is placed at any different angle, it will produce less power every single time. If this is true for one solar cell, this is true for 100 solar cells. You can’t add “smaller” numbers together to get a larger total than the same number of “larger” numbers.

Lets say you have 10 solar cells collecting power at an “optimal” level, that means each solar cell is maximizing its intake. Lets say they all are maximized at 5 watts (Watts is the unit that measures power – look at your electric bills. Notice that the more of these you use, the higher your bill is.). The total maximum power that can be collected is 50 watts.

Now, lets say you have an arrangement of 10 solar cells where any one of them is arranged so that it is not at “optimal” level. That means individually it will not collect 5 watts of energy. It might collect 4.5 watts, or 4.7 watts, or 3… but not 5. Logically, you will never get 50 watts of total energy if any single individual cell is collecting less than its maximum (5). In the case of Aidan’s experiment, all his solar cells are arranged at different angels, so every single one (except one) must be collecting a “suboptimal” amount of power. There is no magic mathematical formula that will allow these numbers to add up to a larger total than the ones arranged at the optimal angle. It is pretty simple logic, so you don’t have to be a math whiz to get this concept.

Of course, Aidan’s experiment goes one step further. His tree pattern actually uses more solar cells to gather light than his control group. Now he’s not even comparing the same thing! If 18 people can lift more weight than 10 people, there wasn’t an efficiency gain, there’s simply more people doing work. In the case of Aidan’s experiment, he compares the electronic generation of 10 solar cells in one pattern to that of 18 solar cells in a different pattern, then claims that the pattern was the cause of the 18-cell configuration gathering more electricity. Hmmm… that just doesn’t make any sense at all, does it?

4. Voltage is not a measure of power.

And here is where the entire experiment falls apart.

Most people don’t understand what voltage is, and warning signs are entirely to blame. You’ve all seen the signs: Danger! High Voltage, right? We all know that a certain amount of electricity can hurt you, and a higher amount can kill you. By saying Danger! High Voltage, we are lead to believe that voltage is a measure of the amount of electricity. It is not.

Voltage is a measure of the level of attraction (electrical potential) between a positive and negative.

The human body can build up to 25,000 “volts” of static electricity, but there’s almost NO power involved – if there were, a simple static shock would easily kill you. Obviously, when you experience static shock, there isn’t a lot of power transfer going on. Power is voltage times current. Current is basically the number of electrons flowing through a medium, and voltage is the “speed” with which they move (this isn’t entirely accurate, but it paints the right kind of picture for the uninitiated).

Danger! High Voltage signs aren’t warning about the amount of electricity. They are warning you, “Hey, this electricity really wants to get out of here – if you so much as walk near this circuit it might jump across the air and go into you!”

Think about a battery: A 12V battery is always 12V whether its fully charged or almost dead (this is actually not entirely true, but simplified for the sake of example – see comments below where someone gives a more accurate explanation). A constant electron flow comes out of it at 12V until it runs out of stored energy. Eventually the battery has almost no power left, but it has always had 12V of electricity. If Aidan were to measure the voltage of two 12V batteries – one brand new one and one nearly dead, they would both read 12V. Obviously that measurement isn’t going to tell him anything about the amount of power stored in the battery, is it?

From Aidan’s essay:

I measured the performance of each model with a data logger. This recorded the voltage that each model made over a period of time. The data logger could download the measurements to a computer, and I could see the results in graphs.

“Making voltage” is not making electricity.

I’m not entirely sure why Aidan thought that he could measure power intake by measuring voltage on his solar cells. I’m not entirely sure why the different arrangements yielded different voltage totals (see first comment below for explanation of this). I do know that solar cells are designed to convert energy from photons into potential energy in the form of electrons: “charging the battery.” Levels of voltage have nothing to do with how charged that battery is, however, and at no time during his experiment was Aidan actually measuring how much power was being converted by each of the solar cell arrangements.

Here is what I am sure of: No one bothered to correct him. Everyone who read Aidan’s essay and reported on it simply assumed that voltage was something it was not. This is possibly because no knew what unit of measurement was used to measure power, or no one bothered to take a few seconds to look it up.

Here is one way Aidan could have measured electric power being produced in his solar cells. Also, Chapter 11 and Chapter 13 of “Learn Physics Today” from Oracle’s ThinkQuest site explain what power actually is, and how it differentiates from voltage.

So then why did Aidan get different voltage readings at different times of day on the setups? Voltage on a circuit is measured using a voltmeter, or the voltmeter setting on a multimeter. This video explains how to use a multimeter. Readings can only be properly taken on an open or closed circuit that is powered. Now, keep in mind, this is not measuring the number of electrons moving through a circuit. This is measuring the force with which through those electrons are moving through.

Historically, voltage was called “tension” and “pressure.”  Think of it like water moving through a hose with a pump at the end. The water itself is the electrons (current). The more you turn up the pump, the greater the difference in water pressure between the pump and the end of the hose. That is your voltage reading.

Keep in mind, how high the pump is turned up does not necessarily indicate how much water is coming out the end of the hose. For example, if the hose is plugged at the end, the water pressure on that hose will be high (high voltage), but the actual amount of water (electrons) moving through the hose is zero. Zero electricity is being produced. You can adjust the pump up or down, thereby increasing or decreasing the water pressure (changing the voltage), but you aren’t changing the amount of electricity moving through the hose, because there is still none moving through it.

The key to all of this is the presence of water. If there is no water present, it doesn’t matter how high or low the pump is set – there will be no water pressure. Now, you understand why Aidan got voltage readings during daylight and none during nighttime.

As the sun came up, the solar cells began to convert sunlight into electricity – the water was being added to the pumping system.  All of the sudden he started to get voltage readings. There were electrons present which wanted to move from one end of a circuit to another with a certain amount of force – and Aidan was measuring the force with which they wanted to move – not how many electrons were actually present.  Because Aidan was completing the circuit with his voltmeter, the electrons were free moving through the circuit and not building up at one end of the other. Therefore, once the sun went down, there were no more new electrons being introduced to the circuit, and therefore the pressure, or voltage, dropped because there was no potential energy to measure anymore.

So, why did Aidan get two consistently different voltage readings from the two different circuits? Going back to the water pump example, any number of things can affect the operation of the pump, or how much pressure it can create. These might include temperature, how old the pump is, and when the pump was built. Who really knows what the specific factors were that changed the voltage on Aidan’s circuit (David Keenan does – it has to do with heat – see his comments below) – but those voltage levels he got would have been the same difference no matter what.  If Aidan placed his higher voltage circuit in partial shade up in Canada and his lower voltage circuit in direct sunlight down at the equator, he still would have received a high voltage reading off the one circuit and a low voltage reading off the other. Of course, now this would cease to make sense because obviously the solar cells in partial shade and way further north couldn’t possibly be creating more electricity than ones in direct sunlight at the equator. In fact, if Aidan had oriented his Fibonacci solar cells in new and random patterns, he would have still gotten the same voltage reading. Solar cell orientation had nothing to do with the voltage readings.

That is ultimately why Aidan couldn’t detect his experiment’s failure. Just like the Canada/shade equator/direct-sunlight comparison, the two solar cell arrangements Aidan was working with were equally dissimilar. The solar cells at optimal orientation had a huge advantage over the ones in the tree pattern – I already explained how this was so mathematically – but Aidan wasn’t measuring the amount of electricity being generated – he was measuring how fast that electricity could be generated on his circuit and one had nothing to do with the other.

5. No one stopped to think.

So, Aidan’s experiment was doomed from the start. The experiment was faultily designed using a fixed object to test why a growing object grows in the arrangement it does. It was already deductively (mathematically) proven that there was no possible better way to arrange fixed solar cells to increase electric generation. By increasing the number of solar cells being used in his experiment (necessary to arrange them in a Fibonacci “pattern”), Aidan was merely increasing the faultiness of it, not the efficiency of it. And finally, when push came to shove and Aidan measured his results, he measured the wrong thing.  Ultimately, this lead Aidan to incorrectly conclude that the arrangement of branches and leaves on trees allows them to gather the most possible sunlight they can. The answer to Aidan’t question is that trees could probably gather more sunlight with a different arrangement, but in order to grow, they must adopt a pattern of growth that allows them to continuously and evenly expand: The Golden Ratio found everywhere in nature. So Aidan was partly-right. At least Aidan was thinking.

All four of the faults with Aidan’s experiment were right there in Aidan’s essay for anyone to discover. Each of them could either be logically deduced with just a tiny bit of knowledge or discovered by doing a couple quick Google searches on the subject. In other words, all someone had to do was stop and think and they would have spotted these problems. Did anyone do this? No. The American Museum of Natural History didn’t stop and think. Popular Science didn’t stop and think. Slashdot, Gizmodo, The Atlantic Wire, UberGizmo, Inhabitat, EarthTechling, and TreeHugger didn’t stop to think either. They all just got caught up in the hype: “Oh, some kid claims to have increased solar cell efficiency! AMNH gave him an award, it must be true! The Fibonacci sequence is involved! Fascinating! Quick, report on it!” And most of these publications claim to be scientific publications. It is sad.

The only person thinking in this story was Aidan. As The Capacity Factor said in its debunking blog post, you can’t blame a 13-year-old kid for this experiment going wrong. All along the way he had to have been misinformed and misguided into building the faulty theories and misunderstanding the basic electronic principals that were necessary to properly conduct his experiment. But at least Aidan was thinking, questioning and searching for answers. None of the people who awarded him or wrote praise about him were.

And that, my friends, is where bad science starts. It starts when adults, professionals, and people perfectly capable of rational, logical, independent thought choose to turn off their brains, fixate on the conclusion of an experiment and choose to either affirm or deny that conclusion based on how happy or unhappy they are with it. This is why we have a divided country on scientific issues such as the nature and causes of global warming, the moral implications of modern stem cell harvesting, and even the very definition of when life begins. No one bothers to work their way through the science. One person publishes something that fascinates or revolts, other scientists jump on a bandwagon and affirm or deny without properly reviewing, media outlets report, even sometimes completely misreport the findings without examining the entire story, and opinionated people make up their mind about what is true or not true based on how they feel about the story without spending much careful time objectively examining the evidence.

Shame on you American Museum of Natural History. Shame on you media outlets who reported on this story. Shame on you commenters who praised Aidan’s findings as “genius,” “obvious,” or something else they weren’t. And congratulations Aidan. Your curious mind and extremely good writing skills gave us all something to think about and even accidentally fooled a lot of smart people into believing the impossible. Don’t ever stop thinking, Aidan.

To see original comments on original blog post, go here.

Followup: This is where bad science leads

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  • Dr. Q

    Ahem. The “go here” link at the end redirects me back here, not there.

  • Science illiteracy and lack of critical thinking ability are serious problems affecting a wide spectrum of the public. The anti-science campaign of the GOP, along with the various anti-science fringe movements, such as the anti-vaccination movement, are disturbing to any thinking person. Most of us joke about how regular news media covers scientific news, such as health studies, but to realize that even specialty science media are now apparently devoid of people with functioning minds is extremely disturbing.  I am still holding out a distant hope that this whole thing was a hoax designed to point this out by studying the uncritical media response, as well as analyzing the comments made on the report at various social network sites. (I could imagine, say, “Of 3,164 comments made on the story, only 93 detected it as impossible,” or something like that.  Such a study would be an excellent argument for the inclusion of a separate course in critical thinking in public schools.) The problem we face is that, on the one hand, we cannot allow people to believe this nonsense, yet on the other, we cannot allow the boy to be psychologically damaged by the result of an expose. I do not discount the possibility that the readings of the standard cell array were fictitious–i.e., that, “knowing” the results ahead of time, he came up with the figures necessary to create them–but probably there was some kind of wiring error(s) or material defect(s) that caused the anomaly, such as a short, or possibly even that the cells were non-silicone Regardless, the problem of how to let him down gently is a serious one. Having been feted and toasted only to be exposed as, at best, having not run a proper control, could have serious psychological consequences, which is what I am concerned about.

  • You forgot to shame the first person presumably involved who should have detected the problem–his “science” teacher. If that project were evaluated by a “science” teacher, my suggestion would be immediate resignation in favor of a janitor’s position. We can forgive his parents for not seeing through it, although I cannot help but suspect that he could not have subscribed to the mumbo jumbo unless it were encouraged at home: “Investigating this secret led me on an expedition from the Catskill Mountains to the ancient Sanskrit poetry of India; from the 13th-century streets of Pisa, Italy, and a mysterious mathematical formula called the ‘divine number’ to an 18th-century naturalist who saw this mathematical formula in nature.” That’s the sort of mumbo jumbo that is a prequel to a scam, like someone trying to convince you that magic rocks with some kind of special energy are going to cure your health problems. There do exist children raised with those sorts of beliefs, and it would be hard to fault them for it. What makes me suspect this even more is that the “science” in this case involves no mention of control experiments, the source of the materials, or the variables involved.

    • 1=E^nf

      Well, well, Mr. Butel. There are few people on this planet who can match your intellect given that there are so few people who are actual thinkers, or ‘right’ thinkers such as yourself. Personally, I’m happy that ‘the boy’ set about experimenting with solar cells rather than drugs! The fact that he produced flawed results is forgivable….how many other great men of science started in this same fashion. I think that in THIS case, maximizing efficiency takes into account producing electrical energy in places where and when it would not otherwise be possible or feasible. By publishing his work, he is allowing it to be peer reviewed and critiqued. Does anyone remember ‘Cold Fussion’ on a desk top??? I don’t think Aidan was trying to ‘pull the wool over anyone’s eyes’. His errors are non-culpable, so let’s not treat him like a criminal or scientific heretic.
      As to mother nature’s growth patterns and ‘maximizing’ energy use….well, evolution is random. If an individual has a trait that is favorable (increases its survival and reproductive capacity) it will be able to out compete others within the species and possibly other species. Maximizing energy use does not always enter into the picture. After all, most successful parasites minimize their body functions and energy requirements by taking advantage of the abilities of a host to provide the necessities of life. So, minimizing energy use can also be a successful strategy. Referring to solar energy collection by leaves, most plants have the ability to turn their leaves to more optimal angles to collect more solar energy for photosynthesis. I believe sunflowers are experts at this. These changes in leaf angles can not only be over a day, but adjusted to latitude as well, so there are daily cycles within seasonal cycles. I think most ‘efficient’ solar installations take both of these things into account to maximize electrical output. However, most ‘home installations’ with fixed panels on rooftops do not. So, Aidan’s idea may allow greater electrical production over the course of a year as compared to standard home installations, and that is why I think the young man deserves more credit than he is presently being given.
      By the way, I’m a science teacher. Did you have a few science teachers along your path to infinite wisdom and superior intellect? I’m sure every one of them is proud of you. Sadly, humility and social graces are not taught in most schools, and it’s starting to show. I wonder if pomposity is an evolutionary trait? If it is, I’m hoping it is a trait that is selected against.

      • Goatboy

        Well, I’m definitely happy to read that you don’t teach English.

      • I’m happy that he had the open-mindedness to take a new look at something, that he didn’t accept the given order. What I am not happy with is that he apparently did not have any viable intellectual discourse with anyone about the project, either before or after.
        I fully appreciate the fact that, when leaves are arranged in a spiral pattern, various mathematical representations of them involve Fibonacci numbers, and Aidan’s discussion of the issue is meaningful, although it ignores the complexity of why plants grow a particular way. When I read Aidan’s essay, my very first thought was, what about pine trees? Their needles are capable of photosynthesis at any angle, and I didn’t remember pine branches fitting the “magic angle” theorem. Their structure is better explained by the adaptation of reducing water loss.

        The patterns of growth that have survival advantages are those that maximize more than just the collection of sunlight, so it is not reasonable to assume that a particular pattern that exists does so for the sole purpose of maximizing light collection. Under the same conditions of sunlight, for instance, logic would dictate that plant structure would be optimized for water collection (and/or less water loss) in areas of scarce water compared with areas of constant rainfall.
        There do exist other explanations for plant structure that have no relationship to the collection of sunlight, such as to mitigate the effects of predation or damage from weather events. Having “too many” leaves could well be a form of redundancy that has a survival advantage when destructive weather events or attacks by insects or microbes are frequent. 
        Another explanation is the effect of wind on sunlight collection by individual leaves: winds are going to change the efficiency of each leaf by changing the angle of the leaf with respect to the incidence of sunlight. If all the leaves were fixed at a particular angle, which would be altered to various degrees by various winds, the net amount of photosynthesis would be appreciably altered, whereas, if numerous leaves are arranged at a wide variety of angles, then, regardless of the wind, assuming that it is not extreme, there would always exist a minimum “critical” number that would be properly oriented. 

        Plant structure is not generally explicable in terms of a “the” cause, like maximizing sunlight, although it may be a major cause in some cases. Even if we accept that a Fibonacci pattern is something we want to use as a rationale for solar cell placement–and I can see how one might want to test such an idea, although a mathematical construct ahead of time would make more sense–I fail to see that an experiment involving 10 or so solar cells on a metallic tree is much of any such pattern. Aidan’s essay sounded like a fairy tale to me, something designed to take advantage of what people want to believe: handsome boy genius + green energy + lesson from nature + mathematical term only a few have heard of. 

        I saw no mention of control experiments or anything else that most of us associate with science; the simplest control of all would have been, before mounting the cells in their respective arrays, to have arranged them identically and to have exposed them to identical lighting in order to make sure that they were indeed the same. Beyond that, I would have repeated the experiment by switching out the solar cells between the panel and the tree systems to see if the same results were obtained, to make sure that some other systematic error might not exist. The idea of a control experiment is crucial in science, and it appears to be completely lacking in the experiment and in the thought processes of those who analyzed Aidan’s experiment. I am overlooking the fact that, to have any general applicability, variables like the amount of incidental lighting (such as light reflected off the white side of the house where his experiment was apparently conducted) would have to be accounted for. Another ignored variable was the type of space in which the experiment was conducted: his was next to the side of a house which could best be described as a half-day environment.
        BTW, if you want to demonstrate to any classes the importance of a proper control, look no further than the case of saccharin, that “evil” substance thought so long to be carcinogenic because of some experiments on rats. It turned out that the carcinogenicity did not derive from the chemical saccharin per se, but from the physical salt crystals formed, only in the rat, from the way the saccharin was administered: the carcinogenicity was due to abrasion caused by physical crystals.
        I could overlook the fact that Aidan measured open circuit voltage instead of current or power except for one thing: he uses as a reference in his essay a book that describes the electrical properties of solar cells. 

        So although the idea was good–looking for something in nature that we might be able to use–the implementation of it was lacking, and other variables were unaccounted for. In the past, we have been constrained by monetary considerations as well as the physical limitations of photovoltaic cells. Those physical limitations are becoming less of a concern now: we now have paper thin solar cells, and they can even be flexible, so it is conceivable that we could design a real tree-like structure with solar cells completely analagous to leaves in their placement. 

    • Saty Raghavachary

      George, I thought the same thing.. Sadly, seems to be a case of hype that’s gotten out of hand. Probably started with his teacher saying “GREAT work, you need to write it up and PRESENT it”..


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  • John

    If they are saying that there is flaws in his essay. Well go figure, he is not a science professor here, he’s a kid,13. he tried his best. I think he done fine. As far as the person saying he already tried this before, well seems like he has a mind of a 10 yr old and forgot to put a patent on his idea. Therefor giving more credit to Aidan he at least done the more professional step. Keep up the good work young fellow.

  • phil coulter

    While I agree that there are some problems with the original paper this analysis also misses some points.

    You state “Nature usually operates by finding efficient minimums.”  This is not true – nature tries to reach maximum efficiency.  If one species is more efficient than another it will dominate.  The problem is how do you define maximum efficiency.  In many cases in nature it is most important to be able to get through the bad times.  Thus it may be necessary to trade off efficiency under good conditions in order to survive under poorer conditions.

    This then ties in with the next point made that “You cannot out-max a mathematically maximized number”  While that is obviously true the answer changes depending on what you are maximizing. 

    Do you want to get the maximum amount of energy you collect over the course of a year?  If so you have to do a complicated calculation integrating over the day variations, yearly variations and variations in cloud cover.  At the end you will have a given fixed orientation and all solar panels should be at positioned that orientation.

    However say you want to maximize the number of hours your solar array produces enough power to operate your radio.  in that case you would use a number of different orientations for the panels to take advantage of the angle of the sun’s rays at different times of day or different times of year.  In this case you trade off the ability to operate two radios in the middle of the day in order to hear the radio on winter evenings.

    Alternately you could want to maximize the collect from a given volume.  If you use the  “optimum” orientation then you set an array solar panels on a plane (depending on geometry you could have several planes) at that orientation.  However you could put more solar panels over the surface of the volume.  Even if most of them are not at the optimum orientation you may be able to get more total output.  (Suddenly comparing the output from 18 panels with that from 10 is no longer so unreasonable). 

    Aidan was aware of these issues since he says “The tree design takes up less room than flat-panel arrays … A design like this may work better in urban areas where space and
    direct sunlight can be hard to find.”

    • Anonymous

      There is one problem with your first argument: Evolution is not teleological. It doesn’t *try* to do anything, much less maximize efficiency. When one species develops a trait that causes it to dominate another species, the dominating species has not achieved a maximum efficiency – it has achieved the minimum necessary to dominate the other species.

      Because evolution is not teleological, new traits will not manifest themselves unless they provide a survival advantage over previous traits: They allow the species to live longer, gather more food, and/or birth more surviving offspring in less time. Scientists have puzzled over why certain things have evolved they way they did – or didn’t evolve certain ways, especially when certain some mutations clearly offered a type of advantage. The reason why is because only mutations that offer an immediate survival advantage – an incremental improvement over the previous – will be passed onto future generations.

      And that, my friend is no way to strive for, much less, achieve a maximum efficiency in anything. That, is called achieving “the bare minimum necessary.”

      • phil coulter

        You seem to have missed my point.  I was not arguing that because something is like nature it must be optimum way to do a task.  Indeed you seem to be using the term “the bare minimum necessary” for the same concept I called “maximum efficiency” i.e. that combination of traits which allow an organism to survive with fewer resources than its competitors will tend to dominate.  However if the combination of resources changes the best combination of traits is likely to change so most of the time nature is not in an optimum configuration. 

        Aidan never used the term maximum efficiency – he basically argued that the tree configuration could solve a specific problem better than the planar solar array.  I agree that there is a set of problems for which that is true which is what I tried to show in the rest of my post.

        • Anonymous

          I am tracking. The only thing I would say is that the solar panel array was already designed to achieve maximum efficiency, and therefore, by competing against it, Aidan was trying to discover a new maximum. Your point is well taken, however. Thank you!

          • phil coulter

            I”ll give another try to clarify my point. 

            In some cases it is possible to maximize something of value in the real world even if it is not a maximum under laboratory conditions.  See for example the Mpemba effect  http://www.iop.org/EJ/article/0031-9120/14/7/312/pev14i7p410.pdf where ice cubes made with hot water freeze faster than those made with cold water.

            Also Aidan’s article did not mention whether the solar panels were connected to a load or not.  If they were (and the load was resistive) comparing the voltage would allow you to compare the power and the only objection would be to the report being unclear.  If they were open circuit your objection is of course valid.

            Either way I would say that his work is worthy of a young naturalist award even if I can’t see anything in it worth a patent.

          • Anonymous

            I absolutely agree. That is why I said, “Nature generally doesn’t achieve maximum efficiency,” and I didn’t say, “Nature never achieves maximum efficiency.”

          • Where is Phil Coulter’s comment? It says it was flagged for review. Was it offensive? I would very much like to read it. Thank you.

          • phil coulter

            p, li { white-space: pre-wrap; }

            I was kind of hoping it would come back too since I didn’t keep a copy of it. I don’t think the post was offensive – I think I used the same tone as i have for my other posts which I would call as critical but not personal. Anyways my points in that post were:

            1) Nature will always favour those individuals or species which are most efficient. However the problem is that what is most efficient is continuously changing. As well in nature most efficient often means being best able to get through the bad times even if it means being slightly less efficient in good times. I think this is essentially the same concept that Mr. Wiedeman called “the bare minimum necessary”

            2) You can often find a real world problem for which the solution is not the same as the simple theoretical solution. See for example the Mpemba effect where ice cubes made with warm water freeze faster than ones made from cold water.

            3) I think Aidan’s work is well worth a young naturalist award even if I don’t see anything in it worth patenting.

          • Anonymous

            The original comment has literally disappeared. I cannot find it in the Disqus control pannel, and I have no idea how it came up “flagged for review” – unless somehow Phil flagged it himself and he is the only one who can rescue it. I can’t get it back, because I can’t find it in the control panel. Sorry.

          • phil coulter

            I made an edit on it, but unless I hit a button by accident I didn’t flag it and I can’t see any way to bring it back.

            Hopefully I have brought back most of the my comments except for one about measuring voltage versus power (the part I tried to edit) which others have done better anyway.

  • None

    Actually, even Fibonacci’s not that cute anymore, in nature…

  • I hope you feel proud for debunking this 13 year old’s theory. I also hope you’re embarrassed at how pathetic you (and everyone else who is reveling in calling this child’s theory bullshit) are for taking such a contempful tone over such an inspiring and amazing thing.

    And no, just saying “congrats, good job Aiden” at the end does not change the theme of condescension that was strewn throughout your poorly written article.

    • Anonymous

      You seem to be confused… http://optimiskeptic.com/2011/08/25/this-is-where-bad-science-leads/

    • ayhcsmb

      Poorly written or poorly read?

      Yes, it’s inspiring and amazing that this kid had an idea and took the time to investigate it. 

      It’s completely laughable and bewildering that everyone that should have taken the time to evaluate the research couldn’t see that the experiment was flawed and couldn’t possibly result in the findings that were reported. 

      The entire point of the article is that “no one bothers to work their way through the science.”  If the article is condescending, it is aimed at the judges and science media that were too intellecually lazy to properly vet the experiment.

      Science isn’t about feel-good stories or jumping on the popular bandwagon of the day.  Attempting to replicate results and offer criticisms is what makes science effective.  It’s what would give the kid ideas about how to improve his experiment.  If Aiden is really a scientist, and the effort he put into this experiment suggests he is, then being criticized is the best creative fuel he may ever receive.

  • I hope you feel proud for debunking this 13 year old’s theory. I also hope you’re embarrassed at how pathetic you (and everyone else who is reveling in calling this child’s theory bullshit) are for taking such a contempful tone over such an inspiring and amazing thing.

    And no, just saying “congrats, good job Aiden” at the end does not change the theme of condescension that was strewn throughout your poorly written article.

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  • Measuring power (watts) is much more difficult than measuring voltage and would require two meters, maybe too complex for a 13 year old. A much better measurement for the experiment would be to measure the current output of the solar cells, about as easy as voltage measurement. Current varies proportionally with the amount of light; voltage is more or less constant, (just look at the published spec sheet of any solar panel on the market) solar cells can be shorted with their voltage output near zero volts but will still produce current, this is how a simple, battery free light meter works.

    • Anonymous

      Right, but apparently now Aiden is claiming he also improved upon overall sunlight exposure (thus, current). This is still mathematically impossible due to optimal calculations and is either the result of faulty measurements or the fact that he has more solar panels in his tree arrangement than his flat array. The second fact is going to negate the validity of his result every time since he’s essentially comparing apples to apple trees. See link: http://www.americansolarenergies.com/blog/meet-a-13-year-old-solar-panel-developer

      • Jacob Kelly

        One might wonder if perhaps looking at a daily scale you are correct.  Being that trees don’t really phototaxis all that much it may be that within the context of an annual cycle by a static (unmoving) array would be closer to optimal.  With modern tech, we’re not limited to a static array however, and thus I think you have a point.  I have no doubt that this is a subject worth debating over, learning more about, etc…and that’s alot more goodness then most 40 year olds stir up.

        One interesting thought is this.  Imagine a tree and all it’s leaves in your yard.  In the summer those tens of thousands of leaves are held up in such a way that the sun can hit most of them and do photosynthesis fairly efficiently.  Now imagine those same leaves on the flat plane of the ground and the surface area they take up. I should imagine you could (wlld guess) lay out leaves end to end, side to side, and have a flat plane of ground covered ~10 times the size the diameter of the branch area.  Yes, they will likely be more efficient (assume optimal daily angle), but if you then place 10 trees instead you would have roughly 100 times more leaves in a given space.  It makes sense why nature does this.  This make sense in this regard as well as in a competitive sense.  If the resources exist to  build panels in such a copious amount with little energy initially input to output, where reduced efficiency per cell is not the primary concern, but rather overall sunlight gathering, I just can’t figure how a flat array would be more optimal.  As efficiency of the design of the cells themselves increase the flatter array might make more sense in a cost to benefit ratio.

        It seems to me, that just as in nature there are different optimal setups for different efficiencies/ environments etc..  I would say mathematics has some work to do.  I applaud the boy for thinking uniquely and challenging us to think, even if there are gaps in his arguments.

        Regarding the arguments about evolution, some level of optimization would occur just due to competition over time as others have stated.  It is likely an array which is near optimal for a tree given it’s natural environment and limitations.  I would imagine the diffences in sequences regarding different species could be due to the latitudes, other conditions etc. in which the trees have primarily evolved.  I think the kid is to be praised for thinking well ahead of his age, and yes the media ran with it, as it often does without peer review etc….but hey, it wasn’t published in Science or Nature, and I don’t think you need to worry about science falling apart tommorow.

        I agree that the kid’s idea should be challenged, albeit politely and with consideration of his age, and given the media attention.  I think an equal amount of praise for being such a curious, seeking mind should be showered upon him as the criticisms and I think that did come up short in your blog post.  

  • Kellen_miller9

    He is right you can increase efficiency within a smaller space. By using his method rather than to lay panels flat you will echieve the correct response of efficent collection. The key to his method is that you must not rely on a flat collector

    • Saty Raghavachary

      An upward-facing hemispherical collector substrate containing uniformly spaced, packed flat cells (similar to a disco-ball covered with mirrors) would outperform any other configuration, including Aidan’s,

      Saty Chary

  • Nyllix

    About #2:

    What does “optimal” mean in terms of solar collection???

    On considering a solar panel array, this means the whole array is facing the sun in the most direct way possible.

    What is possible? At any given time during any particular day, there is only one position in which a solar panel array could be “optimal”.

    Repeat that: only one position is ever “optimal” at a given moment in space/time.

    We are not going to go around and chase this absolute “optimal” every second of every day. A solar tracker can do this for you reasonably well, but it costs a lot of money to purchase, and also takes some energy to operate itself. Anyway, for this experiment, we are comparing a “standard” flat array arrangement to a variegated “Fibonacci” arrangement.

    Do your calculations for output change in a positive direction, if you have ten flat surfaces at different angles? Logic says only one at a time can be “optimal”. When ten panels are each “optimal” at different times of a single day, does this offset the rest being NOT “optimal” – compared to a flat panel that is only “optimal” once per day? We are comparing the performance of 10 “optimals” vs. 1 over the course of a single day.

    Probably the “standard” flat array arrangement is placed best to be “optimal” at noon, since sun rays are stronger around then. 90% of the “Fibonacci” arrangement is NOT “optimal” at noon. Depending on the actual angles, the 90% could possibly come close to “optimal”. Is 90% being close, plus the extra boost from less energetic sun rays at “optimal” at other points in the day equal to or exceeding 100% “optimal” at noon, and less so the rest of the day? To put another way: if you sacrifice a small amount at the peak of the day and collect more at non-peak times, does this result in more output than collecting the most at the peak time, less at non-peak times?

    It is at this point that my logic fails to tell me the answer. I think an answer can be found, but not strictly through logic.

    • Anonymous

      Optimal angle means that the panel is facing a the direction which will allow it to collect the most possible sunlight on any given day. While optimal angle may be improved upon from minute to minute, it is calculated for a given day. Any deviation from that angle may improve sunlight collection comparing one point of time to another (i.e. at 12:45pm one may be at a more optimal angle than the other), but since the panel is stationary for the entire day, optimal angle is derived by calculating how to collect the most sunlight for the duration of the day. It is a mathematical maximum, it is a pretty simple calculation, and cannot be improved upon in this reality.

  • Andy Utecht

    OOPS I am wondering about your validity, I am aware that the solar tree is suboptimal, but when someone types ‘basic electronic principals’ instead of ‘basic electronic principles’ I cannot be convinced to believe anything that you scrawl on a sheet.  

    • Anonymous

      Really? One’s proclivity to make typos is directly relevant to the soundness of one’s logical processes? Try arguing actual content, not syntax error.

    • On another note, I challenge you to find all the incorrect uses of the comma in your post.

  • Jodbronson00

    Thank you ZachariahWiedeman…

    They didn’t post my comments below, how sad! I came here to post it!

    That is CR@P! He have more Cells on the Tree verses Flat Roof. Some of them is
    also broken I’d bet he stick the good ones or larger ones on the Tree, LOL. The
    only way I would believe this CR@P is Cell per Cell comparison.Although,
    I do NOT argue against NATURE. Everything in Nature always win against Human
    Brain. We just only learning to TAP into it.

    • timhombs

      Right – that’s why birds fly to the moon.  Oh, wait…

  • John Steinbeck

    The experiment was an attempt to prove whether or not the leaf array on certain trees maximized the tree’s collection of sunlight, which in turn would maximize the production of chlorophyll i.e energy for the tree, converted from sunlight. It was not, at any time, an experiment to maximize sunlight collection in a solar panel array. Those were just the items he used for his experiment. Don’t take to task a 13 year old boy over his experiment, nor the media for not contacting scientists, experts, etc. for not getting the ‘facts’ about this. Viewed from a layman’s point of view, it makes sense. Not everyone is a scientist, nor do they want to be. Don’t forget that more breakthroughs have come from trial and error, actually DOING something, than have ever come from dry theorems and mathematical formulas written on white boards and argued over by ‘academics’, ‘experts’, and ‘scientists’.

    Isn’t the purpose of a solar panel array to collect sunlight, convert it to electrical energy which is then stored in batteries, not only for immediate use but for use after dark, during cloudy days, etc.? So wouldn’t the goal to be to collect as much sunlight as possible during daylight hours? And if I’m charging batteries, don’t I use volts to do so, not watts? Solar panel arrays use an inverter to convert the energy collected by the panel into usable (AC) energy, as solar energy is DC in nature. I can’t argue the whole technical/math/electricity portion of whether the experiment and it’s conclusions are valid or not. Bottom line is, as a potential consumer and user of solar energy, does an array of solar panels in the configuration Aidan used give me more usable power, through power collection, conversion and storage, than a traditional flat panel array oriented in one fixed direction? That’s it. That’s all that matters. I don’t want to know how to build a clock, I want to know what time it is.

    Besides, it’s only in the last 5 years that ‘science’ has been able to ‘prove’ how a bee can fly….

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  • guest

    bypass diodes…

  • Phil C.

    As a scientist myself who has dealt with a lot of young people, I’d ask you to do us all a favor: never have anything to do with mentoring kids.  You’d suck at it.  You’re completely missing the point, which is that a bright kid came up with a good idea – the effort should be lauded and his talent cultivated.  Irrespective of whether that idea holds up in its details, the least you can do is constructively encourage the kid to think again and refine his work – not stomp on him with this sort of patronizing, contemptuous arrogance.

    If you want to take on the Bad Science crusade, go after medical research.

    • Username

      It is not a good idea.

    • Anonymous

      Phil, I actually have mentored many children of all ages for years. I have served in several youth programs, as a tutor, and as a Big Brother. I even served as the director of a Drug Education For Youth summer camp and received high praise for my work there. Mentoring children is something I love to do and am very good at. But, I don’t really need to prove to you how well I work with children. I’m only going to say this: You miss the point of this article entirely. This isn’t a direct response to Aiden or targeted at or critiquing Aiden in any way, it is a response to the irresponsible and hyperbolic media and nothing more. Your failure to see that speaks volumes.

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  • Voltage IS a very good  measure of the solar intensity striking a solar panel. More sun =more voltage. In fact, that is the only way to measure relative solar panel output. Granted, higher load = less voltage, but the RELATIVE performance by changing the angle of a solar panel with a constant load is VOLTAGE. 

    ( not defending the young man as much as wondering how your reach your conclusions about electricity)

  • Dana

    To be frank, I wanted to reading after your very first point, which is either wrong or very misleading (which cast doubt on your later points.)   I’m a biologist, so I understand evolution and adaptation fairly well.  Life forms do not— I repeat— do not evolve to attain “the minimum necessary (fitness)… to survive and reproduce.”  Lifeforms evolve to attain the maximum capacity of reproductive success within the parameters of their selective pressure.  Those pressures exist as environmental pressures, inter-species pressures, and intra-species pressures.  In the end, those pressures produce very efficient, but not perfectly efficient, competitive engines.  I work with mangroves and I can tell you that trees evolve ALL THE TIME to maximize canopy breadth while investing a minimum of resources.          

    But that’s a bit beside the point.  My main issue is this: for an “optimistic blog” your entry comes across as excessively austere.  Almost like a gleeful forum flame.  It’s painful to read because I’m an ardent skeptic myself and our “craft” has a bad enough reputation as it is, though necessary it may be.  Trust me, I am well versed in the skeptical ethic and I never let anyone make an iffish claim without immediately checking sources.  But when I contest someone on their findings or statistical analysis, I do so politely and I always, always, always begin my criticism with the words “I may be wrong, but…”    

    I didn’t see any such caution in your own critique, but it’s that cautious ethic that makes Science exceptional.  

    In short Zach, I like that you are trying to stick it to the “media” for lacking a critical eye, because they generally do, but with your tone, overconfidence, and smug attitude aren’t doing anyone any favors.  It certainly didn’t serve your point well.  The best thing you can do now is practice what you preach: that is, admit that you have made a mistake.  But I could be wrong on that point.

    • Anonymous

      You’re right. I had better intentions for this blog, but I became preoccupied with other things and left it dangling with a poorly focused sole posting. The only redemption can be in writing more, which I plan on beginning again soon.

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  • Kudos for an excellent analysis- error must be called out whether the perpetrator is 8 or 80 yo…. certainly before they go to Abu Dhabi!  I have something that I think should be added to the scientific discussion, that I’ve not seen brought forth on any site referencing Aidan’s whole ‘experiment’ (“science project” is, possibly, a fairer term)
    In brief:  straight from the American Museum of Natural History site, Aidan claims that his ‘tree’ array generated electricity for 12 1/2 hours during the winter.  However, note that his experiment was performed in New York, and the ‘winter’ test was in December –> giving the benefit of the doubt (southern New York, longest day in December), the onset of civil twighlight (morning) is 6:30a, and ends (evening) almost exactly at 5p.  That’s only 10.5 hrs where there is any sort of natural light (and that’s being extremely generous).  Looking at his results, the only explanation (for 12.5 hrs of solar power in 10.5 hrs of light) that I can come up with is that his results were [further] contaminated by artificial light sources.

    Looking at the bigger picture, one popular attitude about this project on the Internet suggests that it’s wrong to criticize Aidan’s results, e.g., “the effort should be lauded”.  I’ll simply point out the downside of the “effort is more important than results” camp with a link to a video that sums up where this thinking leads:

  • Liam Roche

    13 is an great age to have ideas, to have big ideas, and to make mistakes. I’m sure I was rather older when I thought of a perpetual motion machine that my physics teacher couldn’t debunk (and I at least half believed it could work). And I’m pleased that I managed to realise why it wouldn’t work myself. I am sure Aiden will learn more about electricity, measurement and physics from his mistakes than from anything else he does. Well done, kid – you have a bright future!

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