Why is the microwave so infamous?

Well, it seems that we all have a dangerous robot, intent on our destruction, lurking in our kitchens folks. Yesterday I received this e-mail;

Please read and take care, ensure that you make your families and friends aware of this. THIS ONE NEEDS TO BE SHARED!

Micro-Waved Water – one MUST read

A 26-year old guy decided to have a cup of coffee. He took a cup of water and put it in the microwave to heat it up (something that he had done numerous times before).

I am not sure how long he set the timer for, but he told me he wanted to bring the water to a boil. When the timer shut the oven off, he removed the cup from the oven. As he looked into the cup, he noted that the water was not boiling, but instantly the water in the cup ‘blew up’ into his face.

The cup remained intact until he threw it out of his hand but all the water had flown out into his face due to the build up of energy. His whole face is blistered and he has 1st and 2nd degree burns to his face, which may leave scarring. He also may have lost partial sight in his left eye. While at the hospital, the doctor who was attending to him stated that this is fairly common occurrence and water (alone) should never be heated in a microwave oven. If water is heated in this manner, something should be placed in the cup to diffuse the energy such as: a wooden stir stick, tea bag, etc. It is however a much safer choice to boil the water in a tea kettle.


General Electric’s (GE) response:

Thanks for contacting us. I will be happy to assist you. The e- mail that you received is correct. Micro waved water and other liquids do not always bubble when they reach the boiling point. They can actually get superheated and not bubble at all. The superheated liquid will bubble up out of the cup when it is moved or when something like a spoon or teabag is put into it. To prevent this from happening and causing injury, do not heat any liquid for more than two minutes per cup. After heating, let the cup stand in the microwave for thirty seconds before moving it or adding anything into it.

If you pass this on … you could very well save someone from a lot of pain and suffering.

Yes, it was in purple when I received it.

Well, I would be very sceptical of this claim.

Without going to snopes.com or breakthechain.org I will tell you why I think it’s not true;

  1. It starts off with an appeal for you to spread this information – MAJOR RED FLAG!
  2. The basis for the claim that water superheats and boils is a personal testimony. This is a logical fallacy; that is a type of argument which is flawed in one way or another. There are many logical fallacies (I will point out a few more later on). The fallacious misuse of anecdotal evidence is common, but entirely un-testable and is not evidence. When it is presented as evidence you have very good reason to be sceptical.
  3. he removed the cup from the oven. As he looked into the cup, he noted that the water was not boiling, but instantly the water in the cup ‘blew up’ into his face.” Can you see how weak this is? He removed the cup from the microwave, disturbing the water, moved it so that he could see into it and only THEN did it supposedly “blow up”. That just doesn’t make sense, if you disturb it, it should boil immediately, not after moving it around so much.
  4. all the water had flown out into his face due to the build up of energy” Here the author of the e-mail has tried to make the story more convincing by throwing in a scientific seeming fact, the “build up of energy”.
  5. the doctor who was attending to him stated that this is fairly common occurrence and water (alone) should never be heated in a microwave oven”. This is another common logical fallacy, the appeal to authority. It is used as validation of the claim. People are inclined to accept information presented to them by people in authority, even if that information is utterly untrue and would be hard to accept if it was presented by a person not in authority.
  6. something should be placed in the cup to diffuse the energy such as: a wooden stir stick, tea bag, etc”. This is more faulty science, the truth is that your coffee cup, no matter how lovely, will probably have imperfections in the surface, these imperfections help the water to boil and you do not have to put anything into the cup.
  7. “General Electric’s (GE) response:” Wave as this one goes by, it’s the second use of the appeal to authority in this e-mail. I would be even more sceptical of this one as there is no reference to who wrote it, where it was published, or that it even came from GE.

However, there is a kernel of truth to this e-mail. Liquids can become superheated in microwave ovens, but only under specific conditions. In this article by Joe Wolf in the physics section of the University of New South Wales’ website superheating is discussed in excellent detail.

Even though this can happen, it is irresponsible to spread e-mails like this one. It spreads FUD, that is Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. Whenever you receive an e-mail like this, please look for the evidence and the flaws before passing it on to your friends. If the e-mail does not convey the information in a reasonable, responsible way, PRESS DELETE!

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