Field of Science

Kid discovers a break through in solar science. Not really.

This sounded like a good story; a 13 yr old kid does a great science project and figures out something everyone else had missed about solar power. Well, the Phactor thinks he remembers being a kid and discovering that all the good ideas you had someone else already had had, and it was rather discouraging, and this remained a worry until in graduate school you finally knew enough to know what was and wasn’t known. This story illustrates how quickly a nice story in today’s electronic media can spread, and then when someone has to say, uh, no, it isn’t quite such a sensational story, it makes them sound like a jerk for raining on some kid’s parade. Even from the small illustration shown in the original article, it was obvious something was wrong, but while a solar energy person pointed out the problem was about the output being measured from the solar cells, the thing that caught my attention was the form of the tree. Tree form and its evolution has been studied a lot, and from those studies you can generate a form that is optimal for light harvesting, and such trees have horizontally oriented crowns and arrays of branches (B). But of course trees must also reproduce (A optimal form for spore production and dispersal) and they must be structurally sound (C optimal form for structural stability), so selection operates not just on one thing because real trees must do many things so rather than being optimal for light harvesting, trees are actually a sort of compromise in form, sub-optimal for several different functions, but good enough at all of them, and darned if the computer generated forms aren’t pretty similar to the form of real trees (D forms optimalized for all three functions). (Image after Niklas 1997 Evolutionary Biology of Plants.)
So if our young scientist had designed a tree for optimal harvesting of solar energy, his trees would have looked like B, horizontal arrays, and according to the article he found a suboptimal "real tree" form to be better at light harvesting than horizontal arrays of solar panels. So as a natural skeptic this scientist was sort of dubious and then it turns out he wasn’t measuring the right output. Now young Mr. Dwyer still did a great science project, so congrats kid! It was a job well done. You learned a lot. Hopefully you aren't too discouraged or disappointed that it didn't really work and wasn’t such a break through, but you have to know a lot of things to really discover something novel, and most of us are happy enough going through their career just learning new little things.

But the lesson here is really about the rather sorry state of journalism; journalists want titles like “ancient mystery solved”, “new discovery of …”, “grand theory of everything falsified”, etc., rather than actually talk about real science, assuming they actually can talk about real science. So before you let a journalist run away with things, please check with a scientist or two, hopefully one not too caught up in their own little world such that they would offer some decent advice on you science project.

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