From the get-go, the story seemed spun by a skilled, ultra-modern fabulist: A 13 year-old junior high student observes the sunlight-collecting properties of trees while on a hike in the woods. His family had been discussing acquiring solar panels for their backyard, but feared their space too limited. The young student nonetheless wonders if trees’ ability to soak up sunlight in relatively small areas might be replicable. So, after researching the Fibonacci sequence, he designs a ‘solar tree’, erects it in his backyard, and goes about monitoring the data inputs and making adjustments -- and makes a clean energy breakthrough. This is the kind of inspiring science story that lights up the blogosphere, which is exactly what happened.
The tale of Aidan Dwyer’s solar innovation hit every online outlet you can think of--it was one of Treehugger’s most popular stories in August. Dwyer went on to win awards from the respected institutions such as the American Natural History Museum, and venture capitalists and educators are now seeking to collaborate with him. After giving a talk at Poptech 2011, Aidan sat down with me to discuss his project. Watch:
Pretty inspiring stuff, right? (Not thanks to my interviewing skills, of course -- Charlie Rose I ain’t)
Of course, this being the blogosphere, the backlash on Aidan’s work was quick to come. A number of blogs and experts quickly took to “debunking” the breakthrough, noting issues with the way Dwyer measured power output, and pointing out that an array of panels pointed directly at the sun will absorb more rays than differently angled ones.
But most of the critical jabber misses the true significance of Aidan’s story, which is no less inspiring even if he did make a miscalculation while recording data. A 13 year-old kid took it upon himself to investigate the laws of nature, and sought to apply what he learned to an important modern technology in an effort to improve the world--that’s the meaningful part. At a time when science is increasingly down and out in young American minds, when political forces seek to limit its role in the classroom, when more and more college grads are heading into finance than the sciences, Aidan’s story is more important than ever.
Aidan Dwyer reminds us how powerful and exciting science can be when fed by an active young imagination. Plus, his work is still outright impressive--he built a solar power-gathering tree in his backyard. What did you do when you were 13?