Evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins questions whether Ahmed Mohamed really invented an alarm clock
Last week, Ahmed Mohammed, a 14-year-old Muslim teen made it to the headlines for bringing his homemade clock to school that was mistaken for a bomb by the school authorities. He was promptly arrested by the Texas police and later released without any charges. However, his arrest lead to a public outrage with strong support coming in for the teen. Since then, Ahmed has received a White House invitation, shoutouts from NASA, Facebook, Microsoft, Google, MIT, and Twitter, and more than $15,000 for an academic scholarship.
On September 14, Ahmed was arrested, handcuffed and taken to a juvenile detention center and was charged for carrying a hoax bomb. He was questioned by five police officers at MacArthur High School in Irvine on Monday. He was then suspended for three days. His family said that the police did not pay heed to the teen’s repeated requests to let him speak to his parents. However, amidst public furor, the charges were dropped.
The webmaster for Artvoice.com, Anthony DiPasquale, took upon himself to expose the circuitry behind Ahmed’s clock. He said, “My initial reaction was probably pretty similar to everyone else’s: ‘Wow, I feel really sorry for the kid’… The nerd in me wanted to know specifically what he did—what technology or methods he might’ve used,” in an interview with The Daily Beast.
He said that Ahmed’s homemade device is actually a factory-produced clock. In a controversial post on Artvoice, he wrote “Somewhere in all of this—there has indeed been a hoax. Ahmed Mohamed didn’t invent his own alarm clock. He didn’t even build a clock.”
DiPasquale said all signs point to a mass-produced model. He discovered the 1980s-era circuit board, which has a silk-screened “M” logo, to a vintage Micronta clock found on eBay. He pointed out other “dead giveaways” of a store-bought clock, including a switch to choose 12-or 24-hour time and a battery backup. However, he does not say whether or not such crimes deserve arrest.
“Anyone with even a basic hobby-level understanding could see it was a commercially available mass-produced product that was just taken out of its enclosure, and placed in a pencil box,” said DiPasquale. “So I read some more about the story, and nowhere did I see anybody actually bring that point up.”
“Here we have a social media frenzy going on, with everybody to the President of the United States giving him a pat on the back, and I started thinking less about the clock, and more about us, as a society,” he added.
“Because, is it possible, that maybe, just maybe, this was actually a hoax bomb?” he wrote. “A silly prank that was taken the wrong way? That the media then ran with, and everyone else got carried away? Maybe there wasn’t even any racial or religious bias on the parts of the teachers and police.”
However, DiPasquale does not appear to have offered any evidence supporting his hoax theory.
Another researcher, Thomas Talbot, an electronics author and prominent medical virtual reality scientist, said the clock’s printed circuit boards and ribbon cables, along with the 9-volt battery backup, are signs of a commercial product.
In his video, Talbot displays a photo of Ahmed’s clock and on screen, flashes an arrow over a tangle of cords protruding out from the case. Talking about the design, he says “This was put in here to look like a device, with these cables and these… to look like a device that would be suspicious, and I think intentionally so.”
“This is simply taking a clock out of its case, and I think probably for provocative reasons, intentionally,” he said in his video. He did not exaggerate on it further.
“When I saw this, I thought, ‘We’re getting duped here,’” Talbot told The Daily Beast, adding, “Anybody who knows electronics really well needs less than five seconds to know that was a clock taken out of the box.”
The researcher, who has run competitions for young inventors of Ahmed’s age, said he has no intention to pick on Mohamed but rather the media’s failure to capture more of the story. Social media activists over the weekend began a campaign to downvote his YouTube video, which garnered more than 380,000 views on Sunday night.
“Whether it fits your narrative or whatever you want to believe… this particular child down in Texas did not make anything,” Talbot said in the video, adding, “People should not recognize this as an invention and recognize this child as an inventor for this particular creation.”
Similarly, the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins had a takedown on Ahmed’s device tweeting on Sunday saying that “We were all fooled”, which found him at the centre of controversy.
While Dawkins did not debate that Ahmed should not have been arrested, he however questioned the “motive” of the 14-year-old teen, which was inside a black pencil case and tied shut with a cable. He tweeted: “If this is true, what was his motive? Whether or not he wanted the police to arrest him, they shouldn’t have done so.”
The emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford said he was simply looking for the truth of the Texas schoolboy’s story.
In a tweet, the scientist linked to a YouTube video entitled Ahmed Mohammed [sic] Clock is a FRAUD, in which user Thomas Talbot alleges Mohamed’s clock “is in fact not an invention. The ‘clock’ is a commercial bedside alarm clock removed from its casing”.
If this is true, what was his motive? Whether or not he wanted the police to arrest him, they shouldn’t have done so https://t.co/LtOFAAmVxK
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) September 20, 2015
In his tweet, Dawkins said of the video: “This man seems to know what he’s talking about.”
The tweets that followed later issued against a growing storm of online protest, said: “Assembling clock from bought components is fine. Taking clock out of its case to make it look as if he built it is not fine. Which is true?
“Yes, there are other reasons why a boy might take a clock out of its casing & pretend he’d made it. Trying to impress teachers, for instance[.]”
Linking to an artvoice.com blogpost entitled Reverse Engineering Ahmed Mohamed’s clock … and Ourselves, Dawkins tweeted: “If the reassembled components did something more than the original clock, that’s creative. If not, it looks like hoax.”
Eventually, Dawkins withdrew. He then directed the tweets to question police motives and tweeted a reference to the new leader of Britain’s opposition Labour party: “Sorry if I go a bit over the top in my passion for truth. Not just over a boy’s alleged ‘invention’ but also media lies about J[eremy] Corbyn.”
In an answer to a Twitter user who wrote: “I think you too frequently confuse ‘truth’ with ‘obsessive and unnecessary dedication to accuracy’”, Dawkins wrote: “That could well be true, in which case I apologise. I guess I’m a bit sensitive about being among the many fooled.”
He afterwards retweeted President Obama’s White House invitation to the boy.
Regardless of Ahmed’s intentions, the public shoutouts over Ahmed’s arrest was apparently less about the clock and more about his arrest.