In case you missed it, there was a steamy story last week concerning a Harvard physicist, a tea kettle, and a Google search. No, this is not the beginning of a bad joke. Rather, it's a true story that underscores the importance of knowing where information is coming from, especially if it's on the Internet.
It all started when The Sunday Times, a UK newspaper, ran an article about a Harvard physicist's research on the environmental impact of computing. The article reported that, "Performing two Google searches from a desktop computer can generate about the same amount of carbon dioxide as boiling a kettle for a cup of tea….While millions of people tap into Google without considering the environment, a typical search generates about 7g of CO2. Boiling a kettle generates about 15g."
It didn't take long for Google to refute the 7g statistic. Later that day, the Official Google Blog noted that this number was "*many* times too high" and went on to explain that one Google search is equivalent to only about 0.2 grams of CO2.
This story was far from over, though. The next day, Harvard physicist Alex Wissner-Gross denied providing the 7g statistic. According to TechNewsWorld:
"… the study's author, Harvard University physicist Alex Wissner-Gross, says he never mentions Google in the study. 'For some reason, in their story on the study, the Times had an ax to grind with Google,' Wissner-Gross told TechNewsWorld. 'Our work has nothing to do with Google. Our focus was exclusively on the Web overall, and we found that it takes on average about 20 milligrams of CO2 per second to visit a Web site.' And the example involving tea kettles? 'They did that. I have no idea where they got those statistics,' Wissner-Gross said."
But that's not quite true. Wissner-Gross wrote an editorial piece to accompany the tea kettle article. In it, he wrote "Google does not divulge its energy use or carbon footprint but, based on publicly available information, we have calculated that each Google search generates an estimated 5-10g of CO2…."
When TechCrunch's Jason Kincaid asked about this passage, Wissner-Gross said he had attributed the 5-10g figure to "publicly available information" and not to his own research in the draft he submitted to The Sunday Times. According to Kincaid, The Sunday Times' science and environment editor has "confirmed that the wording was changed during editing, but insists that Wissner-Gross claimed the statistic as one of his own findings during a phone conversation."
So what "publicly available information" was Wissner-Gross referring to? It was a blog by Rolf Kersten. In the blog, Kersten estimates that one Google search generates 6.8 grams of CO2 emissions. "…even if Wissner-Gross is telling the truth and he never misrepresented the origin of the data," said Kincaid, "he used a blog that could hardly be considered a reputable scientific source (no offense, Mr. Kersten) to write his article."
Although it took a few days, The Sunday Times added a "clarification" to the tea kettle article. The clarification said The Sunday Times accepted Google's 0.2g figure. However, it skirts around the issue of where the 7g figure came from by saying the article had been "referring to a Google search that may involve several attempts to find the object being sought and that may last for several minutes." There was no clarification added to Wissner-Gross's editorial piece.