Science Diet: The True Cost of your Smartphone


Science Diet is a weekly selection of five science/technology stories that are timely and relevant, fascinating and inspiring, and certain to stimulate your mind.

     1. What your smartphone really costs

We all love the smartphone, don’t we? It has become an extension of your arm. It was manufactured in China, of course. But the Chinese do more than just put it together – your phone contains some of the so-called rare-earth elements for which China is practically the only supplier in the world.

All said, your most intimate friend probably cost you some integral multiple of Rs. 10k. But it costs much, much more than that. Because it, not to mention your laptop and tablet, likely contains contraband minerals and metals (such as tantalum) which fund conflict – with child soldiers – in Congo. Even if you read nothing else today, read about the people who toil to feed the vast and distant global electronics industry.

The solution? Marcus Bleasdale, the photographer who took these images, says, “Consumers should demand that technology companies produce products that are free of conflict minerals.” Learn more here and here.

      2. Climate change is more than just global warming

Climate change is not just about rising temperatures, more extreme weather events, and sea-level rise. As oceans absorb CO2 they become acidic, which affects marine life including fish. It even changes their brains.

This wonderfully immersive story in The Seattle Times describes what is happening in the Pacific Ocean, but it’s likely the Indian Ocean is undergoing similar changes. Which means fishermen’s livelihoods are at stake. This is one of the cruel ironies of climate change: the people on the frontlines who take the blows are not the rich, who are responsible for most of the CO2 emissions, but the poor.

   3. The Simpsons are geeks

And you thought The Big Bang Theory was the ultimate TV show for geeks/nerds. How about The Simpsons? It turns out some of the people who write the scripts for The Simpsons are math geeks, some even having PhDs. The jokes, of course, are meant to be understood only by fellow math nerds. If you’re surprised, read this piece in The Guardian by Simon Singh, who has written an entire book on the subject.

       4. “Water ATMs”

A company called Sarvajal has an innovative solution to the problem of providing clean and safe water to people in rural areas where there is no water supply: solar-powered water ATMs, which dispense clean water any time using a prepaid card. The machines even have sensors which transmit data through the mobile network, which enables tracking of water usage and quality, and helps with their maintenance. Interestingly, the CEO of this company, Anand Shah, says, “When people started paying for water, the men started going to get it.”

       5.    Carbon nanotubes could replace silicon

What happens when Moore’s Law – the doubling of the density of transistors on chips every 18 months – fails to hold? Here’s one possible answer: Researchers at Stanford have developed a processor made of carbon nanotubes. And transistors made of carbon nanotubes turn out to be faster and more energy efficient than those made of silicon.

Science Diet is a new weekly column on T5E. View last week’s Science Diet here.


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