Young Naturalist awardee gets burned in spotlight

Whatever happened to the citizen-scientist? All a person really has to do to be a scientist is have an idea and do an experiment to see if it works. Usually it doesn’t. Or maybe that’s just my limited experience. In any case, the experimenter is still a scientist. I even claim to be a scientist, although as a specialist in intestinal parasites, I am at the absolute nadir of science, below which it is impossible to go.

I think one reason citizen-scientists are so rare anymore is that many citizens would rather watch reality TV than be a part of reality. It certainly is easier and cheaper. 

Sometimes I think people spend more time learning how to operate new apps on their cellphones than learning about how the real world works. I guess cellphones are real, but are applications?

There may be other problems, too, as Aidan Dwyer has discovered. Aidan is a young man 13 years of age who made the mistake of going hiking in the real world where he noticed the Fibonacci arrangement of tree branches. He learned biologists assume that this arrangement provides for an efficient collection of solar energy for photosynthesis.

The yard of their home was too small for a solar collector so he built a plastic tree with solar panels arranged in the Fibonacci series. He measured the voltage on his tree solar collector and a flat plane solar collector. That’s called an experiment.

Unfortunately, Aidan made a mistake. He measured voltage instead of power. (If I knew, in the seventh grade, the difference between voltage and power, I forgot it by the eighth. I only relearned it a year ago when I studied for my ham radio license.)

See, electricity is like a water line into your house. Voltage is equivalent to the water pressure. Current is the diameter of the pipe. Power is the flow of water out of the pipe. So pressure, current and power are all related. If pressure is high but the pipe is small, the amount of water will still be small. Power obviously depends on both voltage and current. Aidan measured only voltage when he wanted to see how much power his tree produced.

Even so, Aidan won a Young Naturalist Award from the Museum of Natural History for his experiment. As a result, he has been invited to give presentations at a number of prestigious scientific meetings.

Then the vitriol started. The story went viral on the Internet, and people around the world began attacking his intelligence and character. Many berated him, called him names, and ridiculed him for his mistake. The Museum of Natural History issued a statement that it was concerned whether the science put forward in the contest was scientifically accurate. There were even some major scientists who treated his theory with disdain, without having performed any experiments on the subject I might add.

There were those who were kind, pointed out his error, and offered suggestions and encouragement.

Nevertheless, he and his family were somewhat surprised by the amount of attention they received and by all the negativity. Of course, Aidan not only doesn’t have a doctorate degree, he also stepped on the toes of some scientists who do. They simply didn’t think of his experiment first. In the anonymity of the Internet, human hubris is magnified; and those who know a little, often know little about those who experiment.

Aidan seems to have taken it with a laugh, though. He has reconstructed his experiment, carefully measuring power this time. The results aren’t complete yet, but they look promising. Meanwhile, between his experiments and working odd jobs to earn the money for his equipment, Aidan is way behind on learning how to use the apps on his cellphone. Luckily, science is open to anyone with an idea.

Isn’t the science fair scheduled in March?

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Gary McCallister is professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University.


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