. Are microwaves harmful to you? Is eating microwaved food harmful?
Microwaves can heat your body by adding thermal energy to the water molecules in you. This heating can be damaging if it's not controlled. Most of your body is protected from slow heating because your blood carries heat away from any local hot spots so that you warm evenly. However there are a few places that aren't cooled by your circulation and can heat up locally enough to denature the protein molecules and cause biological injury. The cornea of your eye is a good example. It can be heated and damaged because it's not cooled well. That's why you must be careful not to look into a strong beam of microwaves. As for microwaved food, the only effect of cooking with microwaves is hot food. There is no "radiation damage" or "radioactivity," as there might be with x-ray or gamma radiation. Some foods should not be cooked in a microwave only because the uneven heating may allow certain parts to become too hot. Those parts may burn you when you eat them or they may suffer thermal damage that diminishes their nutritional value.
. Can microwaves be emitted to travel in one direction?
Yes. Like all electromagnetic waves, microwaves can be focused and concentrated in a particular direction. That is exactly what microwave dish antennas (e.g., satellite dishes) do. At the transmitter, they focus the microwaves emitted by a smaller antenna so that those microwaves travel as a parallel beam. At the receiver, they focus the parallel beam of microwaves onto a smaller antenna. You can think of the microwaves as very long wavelength light waves, so that anything you can do with light (e.g., focus it, form images with it, or bend it with optical devices), you can also do with microwaves. The only problem is that the optical elements you use for microwaves must be larger, because the microwaves have longer wavelengths.
. How can microwaves heat something? Radio waves don't warm things very much.
The electric field of a microwave flips back and forth at just about the right frequency to have the largest effect on water molecules. The water molecules try to follow the reversing electric field and, in doing so, become hotter and hotter. Radio waves flip too slowly to have very much effect on water. Furthermore, the microwaves in an oven are far more intense than the radio waves that we're used to have around us so that common radio waves just don't do very much cooking.
. How do metal rods short out the microwaves?
If you arrange a metal rod so that it's parallel to a microwave's electric field, the microwave will push electric charges up and down that rod. This moving charge will waste some of the microwave's energy by creating heat in the rod. But the main effect will be that the rod will reflect or scatter the microwave. The moving charge will emit its own microwave and this new microwave will interfere with the original one.
. How does a microwave oven defrost foods? Doesn't it only work with water, not ice?
In any frozen food, there are some water molecules that are relatively free to turn about. These molecules may be at the surfaces of ice crystals or sitting on the surface of food particles. These water molecules can absorb microwaves and heat. However, the heating is very uneven because as soon as any water crystal absorbs enough heat to melt, the resulting liquid water will begin to absorb microwaves much more strongly. That is why defrosting must be done slowly. Then the microwave deposited heat will have time to flow through the food and melt it uniformly. Otherwise, you can end up with boiling hot spots mixed together with frozen icy spots.
. How does the resonant cavity in the magnetron work?
When it's active, the magnetron's cavity has electric charge sloshing back and forth along its tines. The charge moves at a frequency determined by the shape and size of the cavity and these are carefully controlled so that the cavity's natural resonance frequency is 2.45 gigahertz. To keep the charge sloshing, the magnetron adds negative charge from a hot filament wire located in the center of the cavity. Electrons flowing off of this wire are steered toward the negative tines by a magnetic field. As a result, the charges continue to slosh back and forth indefinitely. A small wire connected inside the magnetron extracts some of the energy in the magnetron and converts it into microwaves outside the magnetron. This wire acts as an antenna. The antenna is located in the pipe that carries the microwaves to the cooking chamber.
. I have a friend who refuses to stand in front of the microwave oven in his kitchen, because he feels the "nuclear waves" leak and will cause his sperm to deform (and he doesn't want ugly kids). Is this true? What about car phones? He heard they were bad, too!
Both microwave ovens and car phones emit electromagnetic radiation. But that radiation has relatively long wavelengths (about 12 cm in the case of microwave ovens and about 40 cm in the case of car phones) and is not at all like the electromagnetic waves emitted by nuclear processes. Nuclear electromagnetic radiation, usually called gamma rays, has extremely short wavelengths (less than 0.001 nanometer or about a millionth of the wavelength of visible light). All electromagnetic waves are emitted and absorbed as particles called photons. The energy in a photon is inversely proportional to its wavelength (in vacuum). Gamma rays, with their short wavelengths, have very energetic photons that can do lots of chemical damage to your tissue. But the longer wavelength radiation from microwave ovens and car phones comes as very low energy photons. These photons can't do chemical damage. The only thing those waves can do is heat things. Microwave ovens are carefully shielded so that they keep most of the microwaves inside. If those waves did emerge, they would simply warm your tissue up. This warming won't cause genetic damage but it could cook your tissue. There has been recent concern about low frequency electromagnetic fields causing subtle damage to tissue, but these have not be substantiated by scientific research and no physically reasonable scenarios for how such damage could occur have been offered.
. I'd heard that if I cook in the microwave oven, there will be a possible formation of free radicals. Is it true? If yes, how? — Angela I.
It's doubtful that microwave cooking forms free radicals in food. The microwaves in a microwave oven cook by exerting torques on the water molecules and gradually increasing the water molecules' thermal energies through friction-like effects. There is never enough energy present in a single molecule at one time to shatter that molecule and form a free radical. While ultraviolet light, such as that found in sunlight, carries enough energy per photon (particle of light) to split a molecule and form a free radical, microwave radiation carries very little energy per photon. That's why microwave photons can't do chemical damage the way ultraviolet photons can. However, even if microwave radiation could form free radicals in food, that wouldn't necessarily cause you trouble when you eat that food. So much happens to the food before it enters your blood stream that a free radical probably won't survive. The more harmful free radicals are ones that are actually created inside your body, where they can immediately attack important molecules in your cells.
. If a microwave does not melt ice, how does the "Defrost" setting on the microwave work?
I've already noted the issues of warming frozen food. However, the "defrost" setting is an interesting issue. If you've ever watched a microwave trying to defrost food, you've probably noticed that it heats the food briefly and then waits. It repeats this process many times. What it is doing is depositing energy (via the microwaves) into whatever water molecules are able to absorb microwaves. It then waits for this energy to flow as heat into the nearby food. Once the heat has been distributed rather evenly, the oven adds some more energy by turning the magnetron back on. This cycle of heating and waiting allows the food to defrost fairly evenly. Still, microwaves are likely to create hot and cold regions in the food so that some parts of the food will cook rather than defrost while some parts remain frozen.
. If a radio station operated at 2.45 gigahertz, could you pick it up when your microwave was turned on and attached speakers?
If some radio station were to operate at 2.45 gigahertz, the main effect would be very poor reception of that channel on your radio. The oven isn't a transmitter for microwaves; it just makes them like crazy. Most of the microwaves never leave the cooking chamber and there are strict regulations on any leakage. But it would only take a few thousandths of a watt of leaking microwave power to cause trouble in your reception of the radio station. Your radio wouldn't be able to distinguish that station's transmission from microwaves leaking out of your oven. The radio would struggle to pick up the signal and you would probably hear lots of noise in the background.