The other week, my seven year old son told me that if he put a magnet up to the side of a cornflakes box, he would undoubtedly be able to extract some iron. The reason? Cornflakes contain iron. Dutifully, I leapt up to extract a book on basic chemistry, which Santa had wisely delivered to the children as a Christmas present. I explained to both son and daughter the periodic table, the nature of elements and how compounds from those elements could be formed.

The next week, the son came home armed with a project from school. He had to list all the metals he could think of in alphabetical order. Armed with the knowledge of where to find the periodic table, he spent the whole evening with his friend from over the road listing down all of the metallic elements he could find. Even, I might add, those radioactive elements only created in American laboratories with a half life of less than a second.

Boy, was I proud. I really thought that his teacher would be pleased with his research. When he came home the next evening, I asked him how it all went, anticipating that no-one could have listed down more of the basic metal elements than he had. But I was wrong.

The industrious son explained that several members of the class had access to CD-ROM encyclopedias and had used these to effect. They too had listed a lot of metals.

Information, it would appear, is now cheap. Anyone with a book, CD-ROM or access to the Internet, can now gain access to all sorts of knowledge that previously was in the realm of the minority.

And, just as the calculator has eliminated the drudgery of long division, so the computer has now eliminated the need to remember many things that were learned by rote when I was at school. Just tap in a few keys and you’re there.

The trick for the future will be how we interpret, understand and, most importantly, question all the information we are given. It’s fine to know where to find information, great to write things down in long lists. But people will still look at you strangely if you think you can extract iron from a cornflakes packet.

Dave Wilson Editor