When a story seems too good to be true, it probably is. Take this one in The Daily Mail about an 18-year-old science student from a rural village in Nepal who, according to the British newspaper, invented a cheap solar panel made from human hair.
According to the story, Milan Karki, who comes from a village in eastern Nepal but attends school in Kathmandu, had the idea of replacing silicon, the rather pricey semiconductor found in conventional solar panels, with human hair.
Melanin, a pigment that gives hair its colour, is light sensitive and also acts as a type of conductor. Because hair is far cheaper than silicon the appliance is less costly.
The solar panel can charge a mobile phone or a pack of batteries capable of providing light all evening.
Milan began his quest to create electricity when he was a boy living in Khotang, a remote district of Nepal completely unconnected to electricity. According to him, villagers were skeptical of his invention at first.
'They believe in superstitions, they don't believe in science. But now they believe,' he said.
Superstitious as they may have been, the villagers were justified in their skepticism. While it's true that melanin is a pretty good conductor, human hair, no matter how dark, is most definitely not. It's no replacement for doped silicon wafers.
That alone should debunk the whole thing. But what really set of our bogosity detectors was this line from the Daily Mail's story:
[Mr. Karki] was originally inspired after reading a book by physicist Stephen Hawking, which discussed ways of creating static energy from hair.
First off, you don't "create" any kind of energy, static or otherwise, from hair or from anything else. Energy doesn't get created, just transferred. Second, rubbing a balloon against your head has little to do with semiconductors. And third, being the nerds that we are, we're fairly voracious consumers of Stephen Hawking's works, and we couldn't recall any discussion about static electricity and hair.
After searching his books on Amazon, we discovered that the only reference we could find was a passage in "George's Secret Key to the Universe," a children's book (fiction) that he wrote with his daughter.
And finally, just look at the guy's expression and tell us he's not pulling the reporter's leg.
Either there's a lot more to this story than a student stapling some strands of hair to a piece of cardboard, or the Daily Mail got seriously punked.
Despite these fairly obvious problems with the story, it was repeated all over the Web, including on some reputable sci-tech sites such as Wired, Gizmodo, and Geek.com. Even The New York Times linked to the story without raising an eyebrow.
The eco-blogosphere has no shortage half-baked reports about cars that run on water, perpetual motion machines, and other apparent panaceas to humanity's energy problems. While it's true that renewable energies can be far cheaper that fossil fuels – especially if you take into account the government subsidies, tax breaks, damage to the environment and to public health, and massive military expenditures associated with maintaining our hydrocarbon economy – there's still no such thing as a free lunch.
We don't doubt that there are some revolutionary clean-energy discoveries to be made out there, or that young people in the developing world are among those best suited to make those discoveries. But as Thomas Edison, the inventor whom Karki calls his hero, famously noted, "Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." It's not just something off the top of your head.