The Alternative Oven

During the Second World War, the RAF pioneered the use of radar to detect the presence of the incoming Luftwaffe raids. One of the key pieces of equipment used in the construction of the radars was called a magnetron, which uses a magnetic field to propel high-speed electrons and generate the kind of high-powered radio waves needed for such a technology to be successful over long distances. After the war was over, the British government felt it could share such technology with its American allies, and so granted permission for Raytheon, a private American enterprise, to produce them. Whilst experimenting with such a radar set in 1945, a Raytheon engineer called Percy Spencer reached to the chocolate bar in his pocket; and discovered it had melted. He later realised that the electromagnetic radiation generated by the radar set had been the cause of this heating effect, and thought that such technology could be put to a different, non-military use- and so the microwave oven was born.

Since then, the microwave has become the epitome of western capitalism’s golden age; the near-ubiquitous kitchen gadget, usually in the traditional white plastic casing, designed to make certain specific aspects of a process already technically performed  by another appliance (the oven) that bit faster and more convenient. As such, it has garnered its fair share of hate over the years, shunned by serious foodies as a taste-ruining harbinger of doom to one’s gastric juices that wouldn’t be seen dead in any serious kitchen. The simplicity of the microwaving process (especially given that there is frequently no need for a pot or container) has also lead to the rise of microwavable meals, designed to take the concept of ultra-simple cooking to its extreme by creating an entire meal  from a few minutes in the microwave. However, as everyone who’s every attempted a bit of home cooking will know, such process does not naturally occur quite so easily and thus these ready meals generally require large quantities of what is technically known as ‘crap’ for them to function as meals. This low quality food has become distinctly associated with the microwave itself, further enhancing its image as a tool for the lazy and the kind of societal dregs that the media like to portray in scare statistics.

In fairness, this is hardly the device’s fault, and it is a pretty awesome one. Microwave ovens work thanks to the polarity of water molecules; they consist of one positively charged end (where the hydrogen part of H2O is) and a negatively charged end (where the electron-rich oxygen bit is). Also charged are electromagnetic waves, such as the microwaves after which the oven takes its name, and such waves (being as they are, y’know, waves) also oscillate (aka ‘wobble) back and forth. This charge wobbling back and forth causes the water molecules (technically it works with other polarised molecules too, but there are very few other liquids consisting of polarised molecules that one encounters in cookery; this is why microwaves can heat up stuff without water in, but don’t do it very well) to oscillate too. This oscillation means that they gain kinetic energy from the microwave radiation; it just so happens that the frequency of the microwave radiation is chosen so that it closely matches the resonant frequency of the oscillation of the water molecules, meaning this energy transfer is very efficient*; a microwave works out as a bit over 60% efficient (most of the energy being lost in the aforementioned magnetron used to generate the microwaves), which is exceptional compared to a kettle’s level of around 10%. The efficiency of an oven really depends on the meal and how it’s being used, but for small meals or for reheating cold (although not frozen, since ice molecules aren’t free to vibrate as much as liquid water) food the microwave is definitely the better choice. It helps even more that microwaves are really bad at penetrating the metal & glass walls of a microwave, meaning they tend to bounce off until they hit the food and that very little of the energy gets lost to the surroundings once it’s been emitted. However, if nothing is placed in the microwave then these waves are not ‘used up’ in heating food and tend to end up back in the microwave emitter, causing it to burn out and doing the device some serious damage.

*I have heard it said that this is in fact a myth, and that microwaves are in fact selected to be slightly off the resonant frequency range so that they don’t end up heating the food too violently. I can’t really cite my sources on this one nor explain why it makes sense.

This use of microwave radiation to heat food incurs some rather interesting side-effects; up first is the oft-cited myth that microwaves cook food ‘from the inside out’. This isn’t actually true, for although the inside of a piece of food may be slightly more insulated than the outside the microwaves should transfer energy to all of the food at a roughly equal rate; if anything the outside will get more heating since it is hit first by the microwaves. This effect is observed thanks to the chemical makeup of a lot of the food put in a microwave, which generally have the majority of their water content beneath the surface; this makes the surface relatively cool and crusty, with little water to heat it up, and the inside scaldingly hot. The use of high-power microwaves also means that just about everyone in the country has in their home a death ray capable of quite literally boiling someone’s brain if the rays were directed towards them (hence why dismantling a microwave is semi-illegal as I understand it), but it also means that everyone has ample opportunity to, so long as they don’t intend to use the microwave again afterwards  and have access to a fire extinguisher, do some seriously cool stuff with it. Note that this is both dangerous, rather stupid and liable to get you into some quite weird stuff, nothing is a more sure fire indicator of a scientific mind than an instinct to go ‘what happens when…’ and look at the powerful EM radiation emitter sitting in your kitchen. For the record, I did not say that this was a good idea…

Poverty Changes

£14,000 is quite a large amount of money. Enough for 70,000 Freddos, a decade’s worth of holidays, two new Nissan Pixo’s, several thousand potatoes or a gold standard racing pigeon. However, if you’re trying to live off just that amount in modern Britain, it quickly seems quite a lot smaller. Half of that could easily disappear on rent, whilst the average British family will spend a further £4,000 on food (significantly greater than the European average, for one reason or another). Then we must factor in tax, work-related expenses, various repair bills, a TV license, utility & heating bills, petrol money and other transport expenses, and it quickly becomes apparent that trying to live on this amount will require some careful budgeting. Still, not to worry too much though; it’s certainly possible to keep the body and soul of a medium sized family together on £14k a year, if not absolutely comfortably, and in any case 70% of British families have an annual income in excess of this amount. It might not be a vast amount to live on, but it should be about enough.

However, there’s a reason I quoted £14,000 specifically in the figure above, because I recently saw another statistic saying that if one’s income is above 14 grand a year, you are one of the top 4% richest people on planet Earth. Or, to put it another way, if you were on that income, and were then to select somebody totally at random from our species, then 24 times out of 25 you would be richer than them.

Now, this slightly shocking fact, as well as being a timely reminder as to the prevalence of poverty amongst fellow members of our species, to me raises an interesting question; if £14,000 is only just about enough to let one’s life operate properly in modern Britain, how on earth does the vast majority of the world manage to survive at all on significantly less than this? More than 70% of the Chinese population (in 2008, admittedly; the rate of Chinese poverty is decreasing at a staggering rate thanks to its booming economy) live on less than $5 a day, and 35 years ago more than 80% were considered to be in absolute poverty. How does this work? How does most of the rest of the world physically survive?

The obvious starting point is the one stating that much of it barely does. Despite the last few decades of massive improvement in the living standards and poverty levels in the world in general,  the World Bank estimates that some 20% of the world’s populace is living below the absolute poverty line of surviving on less than $1.50 per person per day, or £365 a year (down from around 45% in the early 1980s- Bob Geldof’s message has packed a powerful punch). This is the generally accepted marker for being less than what a person can physically keep body and soul together on, and having such a huge proportion of people living below this marker tends to drag down the global average. Poverty is something that the last quarter of the century has seen a definitive effort on the part of humanity to reduce, but it’s still a truly vast issue across the globe.

However, the main contributing factor to me behind how a seemingly meagre amount of money in the first world would be considered bountiful wealth in the third is simply down to how economics works. We in the west are currently enjoying the fruits of two centuries of free-market capitalism, which has fundamentally changed the way our civilisation functions. When we as a race first came up with the concept of civilisation, of pooling and exchanging skills and resources for the betterment of the collective, this was largely confined to the local community, or at least to the small-scale. Farmers provided for those living in the surrounding twenty miles or so, as did brewers, hunters, and all other such ‘small businessmen’, as they would be called today. The concept of a country provided security from invasion and legal support on a larger scale, but that was about it; any international trade was generally conducted between kings and noblemen, and was very much small scale.

However, since the days of the British Empire and the Industrial Revolution, business has got steadily bigger and bigger. It started out with international trade between the colonies, and the rich untapped resources the European imperial powers found there, moved on to the industrial scale manufacture of goods, and then the high-intensity sale of consumer products to the general population. Now we have vast multinational companies organising long, exhaustive chains of supply, manufacture and retail, and our society has become firmly rooted in this intense selling international economy. Without constantly selling vast quantities of stuff to one another, the western world as we know it simply would not exist.

This process causes many side effects, but one is of particular interest; everything becomes more expensive. To summarise very simply, the basic principle of capitalism involves workers putting in work and skill to increase the value of something; that something then gets sold, and the worker then gets some of the difference between cost of materials and cost of sale as a reward for their effort. For this to work, then one’s reward for putting in your effort must be enough to purchase the stuff needed to keep you alive; capitalism rests on the principle of our bodies being X% efficient at turning the food we eat into the energy we can use to work. If business is successful, then the workers of a company (here the term ‘workers’ covers everyone from factory floor to management) will gain money in the long term, enabling them to spend more money. This means that the market increases in size, and people can either sell more goods or start selling them for a higher price, so goods become worth more, so the people making those goods start getting more money, and so on.

The net result of this is that in an ‘expensive’ economy, everyone has a relatively high income and high expenditure, because all goods, taxes, land, utilities etc. cost quite a lot; but, for all practical purposes, this results in a remarkably similar situation to a ‘cheap’ economy, where the full force of western capitalism hasn’t quite taken hold yet- for, whilst the people residing there have less money, the stuff that is there costs less having not been through the corporation wringer. So, why would we find it tricky to live on less money than the top 4% of the world’s population? Blame the Industrial Revolution.