Shall I buy a new smartphone? I’ll ask the stars

No, I do not believe in astrology, at all. It’s just that my iPhone’s started playin’ tricks on me and it’s only 3 years old! Three years might sound like an eternity for a tech item nowadays, especially for a smartphone, the life of which is heavily influenced by fashion and programmed obsolescence. That’s the problem, right there. My iPhone can still do its job quite decently, even without the larger screen or faster chip brain of its successors. Why, then, should I throw away something that isn’t old at all? And where is this “away” exactly?

Don’t tell me you thought of a bin by the roadside! No trash can is the right tomb for your formerly beloved, almost symbiotic appendix that a smartphone has become for many of us today. A desk drawer is not much of a better place either: you are just delegating the problem to a future version of yourself, who would probably still wonder what the matter is with the stars in the title anyway ūüôā

Even if you’re a fond reader of horoscopes, I bet you’d never met any astrological advice as to when and why buy a new phone. Where do you think a smartphone comes from? Ok, China seems like an obvious answer but, even though I have never been there yet, I’m pretty sure they don’t grow smartphones on trees or in gardens. As you’re perfectly aware, smartphones are assembled in factories ‚Ķ but with what?


If you look at the picture here, you can see how varied the iPhone recipe is in terms of natural ingredients. Wait, did I say “natural”? Yes, I did. The image lists many so-called “chemical elements”, the building blocks Nature uses to make up everything.¬†Among those in the picture the ones you’re probably more familiar with are Aluminum, Iron, Silver, Gold and Oxygen: apart from Oxygen, that you can find in the air you’re currently breathing, the other elements are metals, which are to be found inside Earth. Who put them there? when? and how?

At a very basic level these elements, or “species of stuff”, are not different from you or the chair you are sitting on right now. This chair is probably something you bought from Ikea (at least mine is) and, to this day, you might still remember how hard it was to decipher the instructions to assemble it (at least I do ūüėČ ). Well, Ikea owes Nature big time, as all the variety of substances you find around are combinations of a very limited amount of building blocks, also called atoms.

It’s a¬†minuscule¬†sort of LEGO, if you will, with¬†very few basic bricks. One can¬†start with a yellow brick and a red one, representing two of the fundamental particles called quarks: yellow for the “up” quark and red for the “down” quark.

The LEGO bricks representing two of the elementary particles called quarks.

The basic LEGO bricks that can be chosen to represent two of the fundamental particles called quarks (image credits: Queen Mary University of London, School of Physics and Astronomy,

Quarks attract each other so strongly that, at the level of atomic nuclei, they tightly bound themselves in triplets, which are the more familiar protons and neutrons.

Protons and neutrons described by means of LEGO bricks

Protons and neutrons represented by means of three LEGO bricks, one for each constituent quark (image credits: Queen Mary University of London, School of Physics and Astronomy,

Then you’re almost done: the recipe for an atom only needs you to add electrons, to neutralize the overall electric charge brought by protons, which are positive; neutrons, as their name says, do not have an electric charge. Representing electrons by means of unitary white bricks you can easily build your model for Hydrogen and Helium, the two least demanding chemical elements in terms of required building blocks.

Hydrogen and Helium, the two simplest atoms in terms of the required ingredients.

Hydrogen and Helium, the two simplest atoms in terms of the required assembling blocks (image credits: Queen Mary University of London, School of Physics and Astronomy,

This description in terms of LEGO bricks is very useful to visualize something that can only be seen with detectors much more powerful than our eyes. To have a sense of the scale of an atom there is this descriptive video from TED, which also hints at the fact that electrons are not sitting on top of the atomic nucleus, as in the LEGO model. Moreover, to see how scientists progressively acquired this detailed description of atoms, there is another TED video you might want to look at:

What the LEGO model makes easy to understand¬†is that more massive atoms require more building blocks for assembly: as much as a LEGO box provides you with a large but finite number of bricks of each type, so does Nature with the constituents of atoms. In the case of LEGO bricks it is a factory setting but what about Nature’s atomic factories?

Because protons are charged particles, in order to pack them together in the minuscule volume of a nucleus, you need to outdo their electric repulsion. To understand how this is done, think about taking a bus in peak hours, when you and your fellow commuters have barely enough space around to breath: when¬†someone moves, everyone does. At every stop you hope passengers would get off but instead there are more people willing to board the car: unless someone pushes back, they squeeze in and carve some space for them. When this happens the temperature rises, in both figurative and physical sense. This should give you an image of the two forces that play a role in the assembly of atomic nuclei: the aforementioned electric repulsion (the traveling passengers repelling each other’s presence) and the strong version of the nuclear force (the commuters that make it in at a new stop). To reach and manage the high temperature needed to cook an atom Nature uses stars as blast furnaces.

It is not by chance that the process is called fusion: in the following picture you can see a sketch of how this goes for the case of Carbon, again using LEGO.

A model for how Nature forges massive atomic nuclei: Three Helium nuclei fuse together to give a Carbon nucleus.

A model for how Nature forges massive atomic nuclei in the hot cores of stars: after being stripped of electrons, three Helium nuclei fuse together to give a Carbon nucleus (image credits: Queen Mary University of London, School of Physics and Astronomy,

Besides forming diamonds, Carbon is the basis for life, so we should thank stars for being around. In fact, even though the Universe was very hot and dense in its infancy, its expansion caused its cooling faster than it could form but a slew of atomic nuclei.

Together with¬†Carbon stars gave us the Gold in our rings, the Calcium in our bones, the Iron and Oxygen in our¬†blood and even¬†the fluorine in our toothpaste. To cook¬†Gold for example, you need 79 electrons and 79 protons (remember we said particles with opposite charges had to be present in the same amount for balance) and 118 neutrons. And that’s just insofar as ingredients are concerned. Then you’d have to bake¬†them to obtain one atom of Gold¬†and do so for at least a million billion billion of times (your ring contains a lot of atoms and there are many married couples around). This baking is done by stars through successive phases, which depend on the nuclear fuel¬†and even include¬†explosions! These bursts¬†are responsible for disseminating heavy elements in the Universe, a sort of cosmic pollination that makes atoms such as Gold available to planets like Earth.

Other than being used for wedding rings, Gold is very useful for tech devices such as our laptops and smartphones: it is a better conductor of electricity than Copper and lasts longer than Silver. This brings us back to the opening issue: should I change my grumpy iPhone? and what should I do to dispose of it properly, given its valuable content and its danger for the environment?

Until we figure a better way to recycle all the goods inside our precious tech appendices, a very compelling alternative is this one, of which I learned attending TEDxCERN last September:¬†Basically you offer your old “useless” smartphone a second life as a tracking device against illegal logging. It really is a wake-up call about our perception of useless and waste: waste is only what we consider as such.

Another avenue I am considering is buying a fair phone, a smartphone that is conceived with an environmental consciousness from the mining of its components, to the social issues of its manufacturing, to the possibility of repairing it yourself and increase its life span, to its disposal.

Among the two, which one is your preferred option?

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