By John D. Sutter, CNN
Obvious statement: Lots of middle schoolers have been outside.
But I'm going to go out on a limb and say that almost none of them look up at the trees, see the Fibonacci Sequence in the branches, and use that insight to develop new and more-efficient methods of arranging solar panels.
Stuff like that only happens to Aidan Dwyer.
This 13-year-old from Long Island, New York, was a presenter at the recent PopTech conference, where he spoke with CNN. He says his method for arranging solar panels -- based on the mathematics of tree branches -- is 20 to 50% more efficient than traditional solar arrays, especially in low-light conditions, such as cloudy days in the winter or in places where there are lots of trees and tall buildings.
"My design is like a tree," he said, "but instead of having leaves it has solar panels at the ends (of the branches)."
Dwyer created a prototype of this tree-like solar panel array for a science fair with the help of his granddad. He ordered the solar panels online and the pair built the rest of it together. For his efforts, he won the Young Naturalist award this year from the American Museum of Natural History in New York. (You can see a photo of the solar-panel prototype on that museum's website).
This idea for this energy-saving project hit Dwyer when he was going for a walk in the woods near his home in New York:
One day I was just walking through the woods -- well, on a winter hiking trip -- and I noticed that the tree branches collect sunlight by going up into the air. And I thought: 'Maybe if we put solar panels on the ends of the branches it would collect a lot of sunlight.'
He also made another mind-boggling observation: That tree branches spiral up the trunk based on a mathematic concept called the Fibonacci Sequence. I had to look that equation up before my interview with Dwyer, but I didn't really need to. He can explain it off the top of his head:
The Fibonacci Sequence was made by a medieval mathematician, Fibonacci, and he played with a math puzzle to figure out how fast rabbits could reproduce over time. How it's done is you start with 0 and 1, and then you add the two numbers in the series together to get the next number in the sequence. So it's like 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, and so on.
The fraction for an oak tree is 2:5, which means five branches spiral around the trunk two times to reach the same starting point. So, if you start out at 75 degrees, and you get five branches to go around the trunk twice, then you'll be back at 75 degrees.
Dwyer said he's been contacted by professors and other middle schools who want to work with him on this project, but not all scientists are impressed with his work. Some science bloggers have tried to debunk some of Dwyer's concept, saying, among other things:
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.
That blog post, on a site called The Optimiskeptic, questions whether Dwyer used the right measurements to make his conclusions:
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 ... 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.
Dwyer, for his part, says the bloggers are missing the point:
Some of the commenters were encouraging me and some were giving me ideas to expand my research. But some, I felt like they didn't understand my project. Their points weren't really related to my project. I was trying to see if the tree design could collect more sunlight -- not more open current voltage. But I also measured open-current voltage and it collected 20% more (than flat-panel solar arrays).
Furthermore, he said, his panels collected 50% more light in low-light conditions than flat-panel arrangements, like those found on top of homes.
So there. Of course, science is a conversation. Debate is a good thing. Who knows whether Dwyer's tree-based solar panels really will change the world -- but how cool is it that a 13-year-old has come up with an idea that even has the potential to bump the clean-tech industry a bit into the future?
Dwyer is among the people most shocked by all the attention his project has gotten. He's not sure what to make of it all -- or how to handle conversations with adults for that matter:
At PopTech I feel a little lonely because I'm the youngest one there -- like, by a big range. It's pretty lonely being the youngest one ... I don't know how to start a conversation with an adult yet -- so I just have to wait for them to ask me questions, and all that. They just come up to me and go 'You're that kid!' And then they ask me about my project and they ask me about how I found that idea and then the conversation forms.
One thing I found particularly impressive about Dwyer is that he come across as smart, composed -- and normal. The phrase "child genius" brings to mind the social-awkwardness of the kids in "The Royal Tenenbaums" or overly-adult-seemingness of that child actor in "The Sixth Sense." Dwyer doesn't emit those qualities. He seems like pretty much any other middle schooler you might meet -- until you ask him about Fibonacci.
"I'm starting to get into photography. I do a sailing program in the summer. I play golf -- and I, like, hang out with my friends," he said.
Those friends, by the way, don't quite get all this solar-panel business.
"They're really impressed -- but they don't really understand it," he said, cracking a nervous smile. "I don't really talk to them about it."
He saves those conversations for reporters -- and for his conference lectures, of course.
Click the video below to watch Dwyer's presentation at the PopTech conference last month. And let us know what you think in the comments.