Modern smartphones and tablets are ‘baffling black boxes’ and make it harder for children to learn about science because they’re difficult to take apart and put back together, leading astrophysicist claims

  • Astronomer Royal, Lord Martin Rees, said it is difficult to take mobiles apart
  • He said the likes of Newton, Darwin and Einstein learnt through experimenting 
  • Modern technology makes it very difficult to take things apart and to learn 

Modern devices such as mobile phones and tablets are ‘baffling black boxes’ that make it harder for young people to learn about science, astronomer claims. 

Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, said it was difficult to take a smartphone apart in the same way as dismantling a clock or an engine was in the past.

Many children now have access to tablets and smartphones before they learn to walk and talk, and technology is regularly used in schools to aid learning,’ he said.

Rees, also the former master of Trinity College, Cambridge, said young people had lost their enthusiasm for science by the time they reach secondary school age. 

Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, said it was difficult to take a smartphone apart in the same way as dismantling a clock or an engine was in the past. 

Many children now have access to tablets and smartphones before they learn to walk and talk, and technology is regularly used in schools to aid learning,’ he said

Famous scientists, such as Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, had been able to learn about science as children from experimentation.

‘I think paradoxically our high-tech environments may actually be an impediment to sustaining useful enthusiasm in science,’ Lord Rees said.

He said it’s fine to say technology, computers and the web offer huge benefits to the younger generation, but they don’t always help people learn about science.

‘I think people as ancient as me had one advantage,’ he said.

Rees said the era of experimentation, when it was easy to break something and repair it yourself, helped people learn about how things worked in a real way. 

‘When we were young you could take apart a clock, a radio set or a motorbike, figure out how it works then reassemble it,’ he said.

‘That’s how many of us got hooked on science and engineering.’

Modern devices such as mobile phones and tablets are ‘baffling black boxes’ that make it harder for young people to learn about science, astronomer claims

Lord Rees, who was speaking at an event at the digital Cheltenham Science Festival, said smartphones were ‘baffling black boxes’ if you took them apart.

‘Isaac Newton made model windmills and clocks, Darwin collected fossils and beetles, Einstein was fascinated by electric motors in his father’s factory,’ he said.

‘But it’s different today. The gadgets that now pervade our lives, smartphones and such like, are baffling black boxes and pure magic to most people.

‘If you take them apart you find few clues to intricate miniaturise mechanisms and you certainly can’t put them together again,’ Reese added.

‘So, the extreme sophistication of modern technology, wonderful though those benefits are, is ironically an impediment to engaging young people in the basics, with learning how things work.’

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