Have you ever sat there and wondered how something works? I think most of us do, sitting at a stoplight wondering how it knows we are there. Pressure plates? Magnetism? Vibrations? Sitting there in momentary wonder before going on with the rest of our day.
I don’t function this way, usually when something is a curiosity to me I end up looking it up as soon as I can. Lately I’ve been thinking about just how cool Microwave Ovens are, an innocuous little device that is in basically every home in the US (I imagine).
Bill Maher is someone I enjoy listening to, as with any two people we don’t agree on everything but he has a presentation style and outlook on life that I find very entertaining and he’s often spot on with data points. One thing he said many episodes ago caught me by the brain and hurt a little. He said “I don’t like Microwaves, the idea of them making food jiggle and then it jiggling inside me, just unsettling.” This I found was odd.
Microwaves do jiggle food, they are warming the food through friction. But that’s not inherently unique, all heat is caused by friction. Molecules rub up against one another when they are excited and release energy that we call heat. So if he finds microwaves unsettling, he would be mortified by a conventional oven, a fireplace, or even the sun (which I’ll admit I find unsettling, I burn easy).
These are incredibly neat inventions that in modern day get an unfair wrap because of the standard food cooked in them. A hodgepodge of highly preserved quazi-food that usually has to use buzz words just to get around being sued into oblivion. This wonderful little heating device gets slapped hard by frozen burritos and Pizza pockets.
I don’t think it is fair, these are so freaking cool. How the hell do I have something so awesome in my house? It fires freaking microwaves at things. I put something in there and I get to act like a super villain from DC comics.
I actually went and read the Wikipedia entry for a Microwave, that’s a bit inaccurate, I’m reading it as I write this very post. How many times have you wiki’d a household appliance? I suggest you do it more often, your house is full of the craziest crap. How the heck can we not be overwhelmed by the amazing world surrounding us on any given day.
Good heavens the devices connecting me to you right now are something utterly unbelievable. Trying to explain them to someone a hundred or two hundred years ago would have been a complete disaster. We are the Science Fiction novel of a century ago, and I am sure that there will be a generation to come that says the same about their world compared to ours.
But I am digressing in my food powered hyperrant about Microwaves (which ironically were not used for my dinner, I used another delightfully neat invention, the Toaster).
So it turns out that Microwaves work by heating through a system known as “Dielectric Heating.” Now this was another page I ended up on, and I’ll admit I’ve skimmed this one a little less deeply (but will be reading it fully later). High-Frequency waves excite the molecules of whatever is in their path and cause them to move at high speeds which causes friction and then heat to be generated, in the case of a Microwave this is done to cook food (or occasionally melt stove top pot handles for kids who didn’t know the rules of Microwaves).
The depth that the microwave travels into the material is determined by the density, the more dense the object the quicker the microwaves are absorbed and the more shallow the heat is distributed. In these situations you get a food item with a warm outside but a frigid inside. It’s interesting to note that according to Wikipedia if you stand close to a high-power microwave antenna that it can cause severe burns and actually start cooking you.
Now back to Microwaves themselves. A Microwave is most efficient on Water and fat. I believe Sugar is also included in this world. It has been in my experience that the better something microwaves, generally, the worse for you it is. Now I doubt this is a hard fast rule, I am sure it is full of more holes than Swiss cheese. But if you slap a Cinnabon in there it’ll be molten hot in 15 seconds, put some carrot slices in there for 15 seconds and they’ll be warm at best. (This probably also has to do with densities, but there is a metric ton of fat and sugar in a Cinnabon).
These are truly incredible devices with a fascinating history. The next time you see something in your house, or in your life, that you think is interesting or are curious about I implore you to read up on it. Even a rudimentary understanding of everything you meet will certainly enrich your life, if not yours it will enrich the potential children in your future.
I sure hope someday when I have Kids one of them asks me “Daddy, how does a Microwave work?” I’m going to look at them, clap my hands and say “Oh you just opened Pandora’s Box! Do I have a story for you! There was this guy after WWII who…”
Special Extra: Did you know that the reason your Microwave has a grate on the front door is to stop the Microwaves from cooking your face as you impatiently gawk at your cooking meal . The circles are just the right size to not allow the waves of light to pass through the door! A secondary cool note is that visible light is a shorter wavelength and >can< pass through the holes, which is why you can see inside in the first place.