I know, I know. Today’s comic is a doozy. As I was drawing it, I found myself having to step further and further back to try to convey the ideas. By the time I was crafting an electromagnetic (EM) spectrum in photoshop, I had to say “Alright, that’s enough. We’re getting into grade-school science now.” What this means, is that when the public is misinformed about a basic science, you get huge explanatory comics. If I seem angry, it’s because I had to draw diagrams with atoms and rainbows instead of butt tumors.
The root of this whole cell phone problem is a general misunderstanding about the nature of radiation and it’s confusion with radioactivity. Elements like uranium and plutonium are radioactive, but everything radiates. In fact, right now, at this very moment, you are emitting infrared radiation. Go on, just try to stop doing it. You will continue to radiate some sort of EM wavelength even well after you are dead. You are also radioactive. We all are. We are filled with carbon-14, an isotope, which scientists can use to date our future fossilized skeletons by measuring the amount of carbon-14 that has changed into nitrogen-14. You are a radiating mofo.
Don’t freak out. You are not the hulk, nor will your skeleton start glowing. It’s just a natural thing we all do, and as long as it is in balance, you’re fine. It’s similar to how our metabolic functions produce formaldehyde naturally. As long as you don’t drink the stuff, it’s fine. But I digress! Back to EM Radiation: See, whenever you put energy into something—say by heating a piece of metal—it emits some of that energy as what is known as black-body radiation. At first it starts off in the infrared frequencies as the metal becomes warm and radiates heat. While I’m smashing science myths, a pet peeve:
Heat doesn’t rise. Hot air rises above cooler air because cold air is more dense. Heat radiates. So cut that out.
Ahem, sorry. As our metal gets hotter, the radiation moves into the visible frequencies—the metal begins to glow. It starts off a dull red, and then moves through the spectrum (Remember ROY G. BIV?) onto ultraviolet and even x-rays after that. Now the reason that really hot metal does not turn blue, is because it is still radiating every other color in between, producing white light. In fact, being a former metal sculptor, I had many run-ins with the ultraviolet frequencies emitted in super-bright welding arcs. Welding without covering up will give you some pretty weird sunburns.
But hold up a second, until we got to ultraviolet radiation, all of this stuff was in a category called “Non-ionizing” radiation. That means the radiation doesn’t have enough energy to strip electrons off of atoms. Microwaves fall into this category. Ionizing radiation (UV, X-Rays, Gamma rays) have enough power to cause atoms to throw their electrons off, thereby damaging cells. Gamma rays are powerful enough to knock neutrons loose and it is only then do you get the big bad scary “radiation.” Because now you’re not just forming ions, you’re breaking atoms into different elements, which really wreaks havoc on human DNA.
So now that we’ve divided the EM spectrum into “relatively harmless” and “dangerous”, we see that our kitchen helper, the microwave oven, is at the low end of the spectrum. Now, I say relatively harmless because yeah, microwaves will burn you. But they’re not making your food radioactive. Rub your hands together real fast: That’s how it works.
The microwaves get absorbed by the water in your food and do a little flip to magnetically align with the waves. Now, the oven is constantly oscillating its frequency (2450 million cycles per second), so imagine this water molecule flipping back and forth that fast. Yeah, hot stuff! Your food is heated via glorified molecular hand-rubbing.
Ugh. I just wrote a wikipedia article about microwaves. This is why we can’t have nice things.
Now for the curve, as the comic stated, a recent study in the JAMA showed that cell phones might do something (skip the ad, BOO PAYWALLS). It just isn’t cancer yet. But since brain and reproductive cancers are what scare people the most—not increased glucose metabolization in localized areas of the brain—the media is going to focus on the “omg radiation” angle. Clearly the jury is still out on cell phones and health, but at the moment there’s nothing to worry about. Calling back to the last comic, you’re more likely to injure your brain falling down the stairs than because of a stray microwave or two. Along with the rest of those cosmic rays passing right through us or creating carbon isotopes. No biggie.