January 5, 2012

Aidan Dwyer, the 13-year-old, celebrated as a genius for discovering something people loved to think was true.

But then it turned out he measured the wrong thing, and the genius bubble burst.

It all started when "Aidan, then 11, stared at the tree branches denuded of leaves and noticed they looked alike...."
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....
Wouldn't it be satisfying — in some deep poetic way — if arranging solar panels like leaves instead of all flat produced more power? Maybe. But if you want to measure power, you don't measure voltage.
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."
Oh! Dr. Kleissl! You're breaking our hearts!

42 comments:

Sorun said...

...but in the majority of cases we could teach nature, in a way, how to be better, faster.

I'm not convinced. Sunlight collection is only one of the things trees have to do. They also have to stand up in winds from any direction.

EMD said...

Damn thirteen year olds think they know everything.

Insufficiently Sensitive said...

But if you want to measure power, you don't measure voltage

Resistance (or impedance) being equal, power is directly proportional to voltage. So yes, you must measure it, in addition to current, unless you have mastered the obtuse arts of connecting a wattmeter.

Original Mike said...

Science is a harsh mistress.

Patrick said...

What is it about ugly facts ruining beautiful hypotheses?

Scott M said...

but in the majority of cases we could teach nature, in a way, how to be better, faster

Oh, the hubris encased in that statement! While I'm quite certain that various species of termites and ants would love to learn smelting technologies, I'm not sure a majority of "nature" would be better and faster if it copied humans.

The very notion that "nature" is apart from humans has always puzzled me, especially when I try to see it from the point of view of someone who completely discounts intelligent design/creationalism/God, etc. Humans, by definition, are part of nature and, thus, anything we do individually or in groups is part of nature. To think otherwise would somehow grant us special status in the universe and wouldn't that tend to open up a whole can of worms such a person would best leave unopened?

damikesc said...

It's ironic that Dr. Kleissl sounds more like a 13 yr old than anybody quoted in the story.

"Yeah, we'll show nature how to do its thing better than it does it now. Experts have never been wrong before!"

MikeR said...

The whole thing makes no sense. There is a certain finite amount of sunlight going through the space of the "tree". You can interrupt that sunlight any way you wish and you will get the same power. The simplest way is with a single flat array of solar cells (ideally oriented so that the sunlight hits them perpedicularly). Or you can move around little pieces of that array, some closer, some farther, and it'll look neater and more like a tree.

Probably there are plenty of other reasons why tree branches are the way they are. However, the kid is presumably right, that the leaves need to be (more-or-less) arranged so that all of them get sun, keeping out of each others' way. Which sounds kind of hard.

John Foust said...

As Sorun says, which version survives the bigger wind storm?

Henry said...

Aidan is right, politically. All alternative power is to be judged on it being prettier.

madAsHell said...

The elevator at work has an LCD with a news feed. Everyday, I see a report of "A study has shown...". It's all bullshit.

pduggie said...

Interesting. The kid shouldn't be pilloried for a problematic experiment (he's only 13, and learning from mistakes is key to science)

But I bet he got more attention than he deserved because 'biomimicry' is a feel-good green (newage? CrackMC?) buzzword that substitutes for actual thought. Seems that way a lot of the time anyway.

Hagar said...

Article written by a "communications" major, i.e. a physical sciences illiterate, and not informative as to what the kid did or did not do.

knox said...

from the wsj article:

Maybe a better title would be an intellectual Hannah Montana. That's because the scientist, Aidan Dwyer, is 13 years old.

I'm sure the Aidan really appreciated this characterization. Jeez.

DADvocate said...

how to be better, faster

Thus, the invention of vibrators.

SPImmortal said...

"discovering something people loved to think was true.", is pretty much liberalism in a nutshell.

pm317 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
chuckR said...

If scientists had to be right all the time, there wouldn't be any scientists. Or science.
Well, except for climatology.

edutcher said...

If the kid is using Fib to figure out a better way to do something, just because he's wrong here, doesn't make him stupid. He'll come up with something some day.

He sounds like a pretty innovative thinker and, as Dami notes, the professor (Kiessl, not Althouse) sounds a little jealous.

swierczekml said...

I think Ann's earlier post about DaVinci's analysis reveals the real reason the branches do what they do: selection pressure to achieve the optimum ratio of light gathering to wind resistance, not either by itself...

swierczekml said...

Oh yes, the old voltage versus power mistake...I see it all the time when people attempt to compare generators, power supplies, batteries, etc. A voltage reading, *by itself*, is insufficient to characterize the system! I'm surprised nobody on the review committees spotted it. Once again, the internet is the ultimate peer review...

Joe said...

The biggest problem is that the kid was lauded as a "genius" in the first place. Genius is overused, especially with children. Couple this with the sentimental bullshit that kids have so much to teach us and it does a disservice to everyone.

On top of all that, you had a review committee predisposed to believe the unbelievable, though I suspect several didn't want to be the killjoy by expressing a valid skepticism simply on the question of area.

DCS said...

Classic example of confirmation bias at work. In the adults as well as Aidan. That is what scientific inquiry is supposed to avoid by subjecting experiments to rigorous testing and criticism and why there is no such thing as "settled science."
Part of the problem is the infatuation of many media writers with "green energy." They don't see a project as Aidan's as basically proving that he has discovered the most efficient arrangement of the Titanic's deck chairs. The whole ship is going under, so big deal!

Unknown said...

He's a kid for goodness sake. He had an interesting idea and performed an experiment to see if it worked.

Sometimes testing the hypothesis shows you were wrong. It's called experience, not stupidity. He learned from it and redesigned it to retest under more controlled circumstances.

Sounds like a better scientist than most of the AGW folks.

Keep up the good work Aiden!

DADvocate said...

selection pressure to achieve the optimum ratio of light gathering to wind resistance, not either by itself...

It's more complicated than that. We wouldn't have the tremendous variation in trees, or fagales, if it was that simple. Why to some trees have needles instead of leaves? Does anyone know all the factors involved?

Sigivald said...

What sorun said - and trees also need to shed water and arrange for pollination.

Their branches are not solely there to collect sunlight, and in any case, chlorophyll-backed photosynthesis isn't actually just like a photovoliac cell; it would be odd if what was ideal for one was ideal for the other.

(Personally I find that "I used the fibonacci sequence" or the like - such as using The Golden Ratio(tm)! - to be a giant red flag.)

SunnyJ said...

Good science works to prove that the hypothesis is FALSE, not true...and that fellow nerds is where the train has gone off the trolley! When you become so invested in "your" idea that you want it to be true...your ethics have been compromised and you have an inherent conflict of interest that biases your findings.

Voltage measures the "potential" for power.

There is no "settled science".

Aiden did what Einstein and Darwin both did...kicked back and observed without fear of failure or judgement and let their brains observe and assess! What a joyful process that is. He can still be saved from if his parents can keep the Dr. Kleissel's of the world and their pompous declarations from steering him toward proving himself right instead of proving himself wrong.

Run Aiden Run!

John Stodder said...

More Republican war on science!

Seriously... B. Obama is damn lucky the problems with this kid's hypothesis surfaced before he committed $500 billion to him. I'm sure the check was moving through the system til today.

Freeman Hunt said...

Weird. Why don't they just treat him like a regular scientist? Why the over-love and the over-hate?

Blue@9 said...

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.

How very... unscientific.

What's interesting is that his hypothesis has yet to be disproven. It's still an experiment in progress, so it's strange to see people jump to conclusions about the kid.

Fernandinande said...

But if you want to measure power, you don't measure voltage

Resistance (or impedance) being equal, power is directly proportional to voltage.

That's wrong, too: power = V*V / R.

If the panels were arranged the same way in the tests (parallel vs series, etc), then the voltage would tell you which arrangement got the most light and therefore the most power.

Here's his paper (am I correct in assuming that the MSM article didn't link to it?) - it's an interesting idea, but as someone else pointed out, trees do more than gather light. And if there were one optimum branch arrangement for those purposes, probably all trees would have it.
http://www.amnh.org/nationalcenter/youngnaturalistawards/2011/aidan.html

Here's a nice explanation of Fibonacci numbers and branches:
http://britton.disted.camosun.bc.ca/fibslide/jbfibslide.htm

JackOfClubs said...

Last paragraph (after Kiessl's dismissive comments):

"On a recent afternoon, Aidan showed a visitor his newest model, tweaked to respond to his critics: [...] So far, he said, the tree continues to outperform the traditional panel."

Dwyer is doing actual science: he is forming a hypothesis, testing it and forming a new hypothesis when the original one doesn't work.

Kiessl is arguing from a philosophical position that yield "certainty" without the bother of actually checking the facts. Ironically, he might still turn out to be wrong, but even if not, he is no scientist. This is the Galileo thing all over again, but with a snottier priesthood.

Patrick said...

Ha Dr. Kleissl tell that to the warm/cold shark mutations. Nature will just make this kid smarter, if he rebells against obtuse authority.

Methadras said...

Science, engineering, and wisdom sometimes are a giant fuck you of cold water in the face. Sorry kid, your childlike poetic elegance has failed.

Bob_R said...

Well, I wouldn't judge Kliessl's comments too quickly. They are being quoted by a reporter. It's best to assume that she is a moron. My guess is that nature has lots of lessons for us - just not this area of nature, where the best human minds have been learning its lessons since (at least) Newton. Kudos to Aidan. It's good to try to reinvent the wheel. Not so bad to make it square. Nice try.

My wife is a preschool teacher and says that she has had a couple of Aidans come through. They have not made it to college yet. (It's interesting to see the name trends work their way through the system.)

Crimso said...

"Good science works to prove that the hypothesis is FALSE, not true"

Popper pointed that out most eloquently, noting that if we don't try to disprove our own hypotheses then no worries: someone else will gladly do it for you.

The Crack Emcee said...

Oh! Dr. Kleissl! You're breaking our hearts!

Ahh, NewAgers:

So in love with "nature" - yes, in quotes - such delusional malthusians. Yes, Man - Men - improve on nature, always have. Get over it.

ScottM is correct as well - there is no separation between man and nature. I, sitting here in my room at my computer, am in nature. I don't have to get away to "be in nature" and find people, who think they do, weird - I, we, are nature itself. And I love this:

To think otherwise would somehow grant us special status in the universe and wouldn't that tend to open up a whole can of worms such a person would best leave unopened?

Thus the term "NewAger" - they're so *special* being so much more in touch than the rest of us, the fucking losers.

I love this story, too, other than - as Freeman pointed out - the way the kid's treated. (He IS a scientist, Btw - Methadras, YOU have failed,...) The kid sounds smart and interested. Dr. Kleissl will be good for him:

I predict they'll go far,...

Gene said...

I think Ann's earlier post about DaVinci's analysis reveals the real reason the branches do what they do: selection pressure to achieve the optimum ratio of light gathering to wind resistance, not either by itself...

As Aristotle demonstrated, it is leaves that make the wind blow. You can prove this to yourself any day. Look off into the distance to a stand of trees. Eventually the leaves will begin to shimmy and shake. Then a moment or two later you will feel the wind in your face. Q.E.D.

David R. Graham said...

Dr. Kleissl cannot make nature, not even, proverbially, an instrument as sensitive as a dog's nose. He's blowing drivel.

Eli Blake said...

So he got it wrong. Most kids his age know a lot more about Justin Bieber than they do about science in the first place.

Eli Blake said...

Or let me edit that. They may KNOW about science, but they THINK about Bieber.

Nicholas said...

That's wrong, too: power = V*V / R.

If the panels were arranged the same way in the tests (parallel vs series, etc), then the voltage would tell you which arrangement got the most light and therefore the most power.

Even this is too simple to compare two solar panel set-ups to see which one is better.

Firstly, solar panels generate maximum power at a particular voltage and so normally they are connected to a Maximum Power Point Tracker which varies their load impedance to keep them at this ideal voltage.

You would then need to hook the MPPT output up to some kind of dynamic load (probably a shunt regulator) in order to force them to draw maximum power from the panels all the time. Normally the MPPT will be charging a battery but would then be hard to set up the conditions of both tests accurately since you can't easily get two identical batteries with identical initial charge states. They would also have to be large enough batteries that they wouldn't get anywhere near full charge over the whole test which might last for days. So some kind of shunt load which just dissipates all the generated power would be the way to go.

It would also be necessary to check each solar panel used in the test rigs to ensure that they all match in terms of efficiency and so on. Panels are going to vary from sample to sample (like all semiconductor devices) and if one test rig had on average better panels than the other, that would bias the test. Ideally you'd get more panels than you needed, characterise them all and use only those which fell in the middle of the bell curve.

You would also need to locate the two panel rigs in similar locations and ensure neither were shaded by each other or other objects, so they had an equal opportunity to capture solar energy. And obviously the tests would have to be conducted simultaneously so you could be sure that the weather conditions didn't bias one compared to the other.

Even if you had all that, that just gives you a set-up which extracts maximum power from both panel arrangements and you would still need to measure it. Luckily that's pretty easy, you just connect a DC energy meter either between the panels and MPPT or the MPPT and the load. This integrated the energy passing through it over time and stores the result. One example is the "Kill-a-Watt" meter. These generally use a low-resistance shunt to measure the current and then compute the instantaneous power as I^2 x Rshunt. You can then compare the readings of the two meters at the end of the test to see which configuration is superior.

That kind of experiment set-up is a bit much to ask of a 12 year old but it's how I would do it.