“Microwaves and their Ovens”

Posted on July 16, 2013


Did your grandmother ever call her microwave a “radar range” when you visited her on the holidays? If so, blame the discovery of RADAR (RAdio Detection And Ranging). RADAR was big news back in the early 20th century, enabling the Navy to spot boats and planes while enabling biologists to explain how bats can zip around so fast. It took an accident to bring RADAR into the kitchen.

One day in 1946, Dr. Spencer’s candy bar suddenly melted in his pocket while he researched radar magnetrons. Dr. Spencer looked beyond the immediate concern for his own safety and excitedly concluded that his magnetrons were producing microwave radiation, and that it was capable of melting or cooking foods more quickly than conventional ovens. Eureka! The world’s first commercial domestic microwave oven, the Amana Radarrange, was introduced eleven years later.

Today, microwave ovens are commonly just called microwaves. Most kitchens have that box of convenience in their kitchens, and many people don’t know what they’d do without one. Well for starters, they’d eat juicier food. This is because microwaves heat foods by using the stored energy in the water molecules the foods contain. In order to use that energy, the H2O molecules have to be cleaved apart, which releases heat. As a result of this process, food is heated from the inside out, unlike conventional cooking where the food is radiantly heated from the surfaces. Microwave-cooked food is drier than conventionally cooked food because as its core reaches the desired temperature, the wave-pummeled outer edges are depleted of more water molecules. Modern re-heaters overlook this drawback in favor of convenience, and spending less time over a hot stove. Scientists may have used this extra time finding other uses for microwaves.

Two such scientists, radio astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson (no, not Robert Anton Wilson, just plain Robert Wilson), won the 1978 Nobel Prize for their microwave research. They used a radio spectrometer to view our galaxy and noticed a glow in the microwave region that wasn’t visible to the naked eye. This uniform glow was attributed to leftover radiation called cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB). Because CMB is a residual product of a massive cosmic event, the two radio astronomers concluded this was evidence of the creation of our universe, otherwise known as The Notorious Big Bang. This discovery of the formerly hypothesized CMB is what earned them the Nobel Prize.

Other spectroscopy research measures the type and amount of free radicals in an environment. Free radicals are recognized unpaired or triplet electrons which are in search of another electron to even out a pair. Measuring properties of free radicals with electron paramagnetic resonance helps us better understand microwave radiation, and the effects it has on us as human beings. Examples are found in its propensity to interfere with pacemakers, wifi, and inner ears.

As a result, we now know not to operate a microwave oven with the door open, and we retrofitted the pacemaker design with an electromagnetic shield. Astronauts now know that the clicking sound they sometimes heard when they were located by radar waves was not the chattering of alien teeth looking for some good foreign food, but the “sound” of their inner ear pressure fluctuation due to radar microwave bombardment. Other effects of microwaves on the human body are currently being researched. Signs indicate that microwave exposure can be linked to Parkinson’s disease, cardiovascular disease, and various cancers. Thankfully, the technology to measure and deflect these threats is advancing along with each discovery.

Kiped from the archives of the SyFy channel’s IdeaLab Blog for the TV show Eureka. Well kinda kiped, since I wrote it to begin with. Edited by Tiffany Lee Brown, without whom I’d be stuck in the land of curly quotes.

Posted in: science, writing