When I was a student, in the distant past when most computers were still huge mainframes, I had a friend whose PhD advisor insisted that he carry out a long and difficult atomic theory calculation by hand. This led to page after page of pencil scratches, full of mistakes, so my friend finally gave in to his frustration. He snuck into the computer lab one night and wrote a short code to perform the calculation. Then he laboriously copied the output by hand, and gave it to his professor.
Perfect, his advisor said – this shows you are a real physicist. The professor was never any the wiser about what had happened. While I’ve lost touch with my friend, I know many others who’ve gone on to forge successful careers in science without mastering the pencil-and-paper heroics of past generations.
It’s common to frame discussions of societal transitions by focusing on the new skills that become essential. But instead of looking at what we’re learning, perhaps we should consider the obverse: what becomes safe to forget? In 2018, Science magazine asked dozens of young scientists what schools should be teaching the next generation. Many said that we should reduce the time spent on memorizing facts, and give more space for more creative pursuits. As the internet grows ever more powerful and comprehensive, why bother to remember and retain information? If students can access the world’s knowledge on a smartphone, why should they be required to carry so much of it around in their heads?