I promise this story about microwaves is interesting.
May 17, 2021 12:17 PM   Subscribe

I found an article that said "The microwave was invented to heat hamsters humanely in 1950s experiments." And I thought, no it wasn't. ...was it?
posted by Sokka shot first (48 comments total) 64 users marked this as a favorite
 
Just came here to post this! Utterly fantastic story, and a great interview. Tom Scott is always good, but this was special even by his standards.
posted by Dysk at 12:25 PM on May 17 [7 favorites]


I rarely watch entire videos, but this was fascinating, especially the hundred-year-old scientist, when they hinted they interviewed the guy I was like "no way he's still around" and sure enough, he was more than happy to describe nuking rodents for science.
posted by AzraelBrown at 12:28 PM on May 17 [11 favorites]


"You cannot freeze a human" the aged scientist tells us, his voice dripping with disappointment.
posted by Think_Long at 12:36 PM on May 17 [31 favorites]


Lovelock also conclusively demonstrated in the 1950s that a potato cooked in a microwave is just fine, and no more. And yet humanity hasn’t stopped trying.

They’re fine, just fine, we can stop trying now, they won’t get better.
posted by Kattullus at 1:15 PM on May 17 [18 favorites]


Oh lord, this reminds me of my former coworker who went through like five hamsters for her 4-year-old*, and they kept having freak random deaths, and sometimes she was hoping they were secretly hibernating and maybe they were just too cold...I don't think she straight up microwaved any, though....

* Much like goldfish, she managed to get a few lookalike hamsters to pretend it was the same hamster...unfortunately her daughter found corpse #3 and the jig was up.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:39 PM on May 17 [1 favorite]


* Much like goldfish, she managed to get a few lookalike hamsters to pretend it was the same hamster...unfortunately her daughter found corpse #3 and the jig was up.

Heh. When he was little, our son had a beta fish. One morning, while he was at school, we discovered that the little guy had gone belly-up. Not wanting to have him come home to a dead pet, we hit the only shop in town that sold the things. Unfortunately, they only had them in a completely different color than our dead one. Going on the premise that “any fish is better than a dead fish” we got a new different-colored fish, and put it in the bowl.

Of course, our son noticed immediately that his fish was now a different color and was kind of upset. We calmly explained to him that that must mean his fish was a Magic Beta™ and he changed his color! He bought it and thought it was so cool!

About 20 years later, I happened to mention this to him over dinner and he was legitimately shocked we pulled that on him. Yeah, we’re bad parents.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:51 PM on May 17 [33 favorites]


How is James Lovelock so perfectly lucid at 101????

WHAT UNKNOWABLE MYSTERIES DID HIS RESEARCH REVEAL?
posted by GuyZero at 1:51 PM on May 17 [36 favorites]


a potato cooked in a microwave is just fine, and no more.

This was the same generation of scientists that thought that maybe a nuclear explosion would cook off the entire Earth's atmosphere so I get the impression that they were never 100% sure what the outcome of any experiment was going to be. Perhaps he thought the starch molecules would broken down and it would burst into flame or something.
posted by GuyZero at 1:54 PM on May 17 [3 favorites]


There is an episode in season three of the Murdoch Mysteries--a nominally historic detective show set in Toronto at the turn of the century--where they foil a plot sell a horse drawn version of Nikolai Tesla's microwave death ray to a foreign government. During this episode, Constable George Crabtree muses that maybe this technology could be used to cook food and speculates that in the future every house will have a "potato cooking room".

By season twelve, Detective William Murdoch has moved into a house that has it's own closet-sized potato cooking room, and during a dinner party someone is murdered and their body is disposed of by placing it in the potato-cooking room until it explodes to make it look like the victim was accidentally locked inside despite the numerous safety interlocks Murdoch added.

Perhaps the Edwardian potato cooking room was just too much and an entire generation of scientists were naturally skeptical of the microwave oven.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 1:58 PM on May 17 [15 favorites]


How is James Lovelock so perfectly lucid at 101????

My theory is wartime rationing was actually good for people. He's sharp as a tack, isn't he?
posted by Bee'sWing at 2:11 PM on May 17 [4 favorites]


Great story, and I too was amazed by James Lovelock. His story also reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from the Tick: "Science in those days worked in broad strokes! They got right to the point! Nowadays it's all molecule, molecule, molecule…"
posted by mogget at 2:26 PM on May 17 [5 favorites]


Back then, humanity did not know what the limits were. This was an open question. The reason that all those 1960s science fiction writers and comic book authors had people being frozen in time or astronauts being sent off in cryosleep might be because, for a little while, it looked like that might actually be possible.

Just as an aside, Mary Shelley wrote a story ca. 1826 about the reanimation of someone who'd been frozen: "Roger Dodsworth: The Reanimated Englishman." It cites scientists ("I believe physiologists agree") and denies the story is fantasy ("The story of the Seven Sleepers rests on a miraculous interposition–they slept. Mr. Dodsworth did not sleep"). The story was inspired by a hoax in the news, but it's still a great early example of "diamond hard" SF, if that's a label that matters to anyone you know.
posted by Wobbuffet at 2:40 PM on May 17 [7 favorites]


I get the impression that they were never 100% sure what the outcome of any experiment was going to be

"If you know what’s going to happen, it isn’t science. If you don’t know what’s going to happen, it isn’t engineering."
posted by clew at 2:45 PM on May 17 [24 favorites]


Of course, real science and real engineering are always a little bit both of those things, but for a broad-strokes kind of distinction that's not a bad maxim.
posted by biogeo at 3:11 PM on May 17 [1 favorite]


My theory is wartime rationing was actually good for people.

Or perhaps there's a bit of selection bias -- if you are smart enough to be spared front line combat in ww2 you are materially different from either of my grandparents.
posted by pwnguin at 3:15 PM on May 17 [4 favorites]


That thunk of a frozen rodent on the counter, like a piece of wood, is what endeared this old man to me so much. He relished the telling of the thunk, and then the scamper of the revivified rodent, with delight.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 3:17 PM on May 17 [7 favorites]


So the infamous bit of Maniac Mansion has historical precedent after all!
posted by subocoyne at 3:22 PM on May 17 [8 favorites]


I can't believe James Lovelock is still alive. And yeah, really sharp still. What a life he's had.
posted by biogeo at 3:26 PM on May 17


Chef Mike knows how to cook a hamster...
posted by Windopaene at 3:27 PM on May 17 [1 favorite]


Baked hamsters are much better than microwaved ones.
posted by Bee'sWing at 3:33 PM on May 17 [5 favorites]


From a 2009 review of two books, one a biography of Lovelock and one a work by him on climate change:
When war came he registered as a conscientious objector, and, having temporarily converted to Quakerism, worked on a Quaker farm. But his Manchester professor recommended him to the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR), where he explored ways of shielding soldiers from burns. He refused to use the shaved and anaesthetised rabbits that were provided as potential burn victims, and instead exposed his own skin to heat radiation (“exquisitely painful”).

In other matters he was less squeamish. The laboratory kept stores of human blood for experiments, which was tipped away after 30 days. To Lovelock this seemed wasteful at a time of food rationing, so he took some home and tried mixing it with dried egg for omelettes (“quite palatable”).
posted by biogeo at 3:34 PM on May 17 [30 favorites]


I'd say consuming human blood seems like a pretty bad idea, but the man is now a centenarian, so...
posted by biogeo at 3:36 PM on May 17 [13 favorites]


The trick to improving the microwaved potato is to open it up with a few cuts after microwaving and smash it insides-down into a screaming hot frying pan with a little of the cooking fat of your choice.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 3:55 PM on May 17 [9 favorites]


Poor (brilliant!) Mary Shelley.

I would find it very hard to believe her evident interest in mechanisms for reanimation had nothing to do with her father's extreme grief at Mary's mother's death giving birth to her. That must have been a haunted and guilt-ridden childhood.

I didn't rewatch to confirm this, but Lovelock mentions in passing that his magnetron operated at 30 MHz, almost 2 orders of magnitude lower than today's typical ~2.5GHz, of correspondingly longer wavelength, and therefore much more penetrating.

I've read that our microwaves cook only to depths of 1.5-2 in., and never seen a detailed explanation of the choice of 2.5 GHz.
posted by jamjam at 3:56 PM on May 17 [6 favorites]


TIL three things: the hamster thing, that James Lovelock is still alive, and that Tom and I have the same model of microwave.
posted by feckless at 4:07 PM on May 17 [2 favorites]


I always heard that 2.5 GHz was picked for domestic microwave ovens because it is in one of the ISM Bands.
posted by phliar at 4:30 PM on May 17


The ISM bands were picked based on the fact that microwaves have already cluttered up that bit of spectrum.

I've heard that the 2.45 GHz frequency is the "resonant frequency" of water and I think it's a bit more complex than that but I think that practically speaking it's the point where the amount of energy actually transferred into food is maximized. I suspect, but don't know for sure, that Lovelock's setup was less efficient in terms of energy transfer than a modern microwave. But at a kilowatt into a hamster, who cares about the exact transfer ratio, it's a shitton of energy.
posted by GuyZero at 4:42 PM on May 17 [4 favorites]


a. 101!!!
b. is Lovelock the way he is *because* of the radiation exposure (pound notes combusting wtf)
c. the lamp is blocking too much of the scientist's bookcase
d. as a word, humanely has been hollowed out; we need to mosey on back to the less weighty kindly or some such
posted by Iris Gambol at 4:42 PM on May 17 [5 favorites]


101, or reanimated for this interview and back in his cryo chamber now?
posted by joeyh at 4:57 PM on May 17 [6 favorites]


You mean that after the monstrous, wretched farrago of the disposition of Jeremy Bentham they finally got it right??
posted by jamjam at 5:11 PM on May 17


My understanding is that 2.4 GHz was selected based on the physical size of the microwave oven chamber and the desire to cook food throughout - more standing waves (modes) heats the food more evenly. Here's one explanation, and here's another that explains the heating process a bit better.

915 MHz microwave ovens do exist in industrial applications. Here's a 75 kW model for industrial bacon cooking (which is apparently a thing).
posted by photo guy at 5:11 PM on May 17 [7 favorites]


I'll say this: there is an alternate timeline, not too distant from ours, which has IMMORTAL RADIOACTIVE HAMSTERS with a grudge on mankind.
posted by gauche at 5:44 PM on May 17 [3 favorites]


This is just a wild story. Dang.
posted by Wretch729 at 6:29 PM on May 17


>the lamp is blocking too much of the scientist's bookcase

Glad I'm not the only one who was trying to see what was there.
posted by mogget at 6:50 PM on May 17 [4 favorites]


human blood … tried mixing it with dried egg for omelettes (“quite palatable”).

Magnus Pyke - effectively responsible for Britain not starving during WW2 - suggested human blood black puddings, since transfused blood had a very short lifetime but a very high demand. I don't know if he ever tried them.
posted by scruss at 7:23 PM on May 17 [4 favorites]


That seems like a great way to get both protein and ill.
posted by jenkinsEar at 8:21 PM on May 17 [4 favorites]


> I'll say this: there is an alternate timeline, not too distant from ours, which has IMMORTAL RADIOACTIVE HAMSTERS with a grudge on mankind.
Indeed.
posted by Fiberoptic Zebroid and The Hypnagogic Jerks at 10:15 PM on May 17


Absolutely fascinating.

Turns out for me the next video on YouTube was a Smarter Everyday of taking a shit on a nuclear submarine. Also fascinating.
posted by AugustWest at 11:59 PM on May 17


How is James Lovelock so perfectly lucid at 101????

He is the avatar of Gaia, sticking around until we get it right.
posted by JohnFromGR at 3:50 AM on May 18 [1 favorite]


That seems like a great way to get both protein and ill.

Undercooked hamster meat should not be consumed - especially if the hamster is undercooked just back to reanimation.
posted by Nanukthedog at 4:36 AM on May 18 [2 favorites]


This is an amazing story!

I recall all the stories about people microwaving their cold pets- that was a horror story in the 1980s.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:12 AM on May 18


Even before I clicked the link I knew it was going to be a Tom Scott.
posted by james33 at 8:18 AM on May 18


How is James Lovelock so perfectly lucid at 101????

"You cannot freeze a human... Human's too big. No way to do it. You can't use a process unknown to human science to, say, slow aging and mental deterioration and grant functional immortality to a person of sufficient value to humanity. You can't do that. If you've heard otherwise, there's just no truth to it. I can't stress that enough. No way to do it. Not possible. Been working on it since Atlantis -- no, not Atlantis. I mean the Peloponnesian, uh, no, what is it? Second World War."
posted by The Bellman at 8:36 AM on May 18 [13 favorites]


Good to see Mefi typically zeroing in on the ‘should I eat this’ aspect.
posted by Phanx at 10:00 AM on May 18 [10 favorites]


He is the avatar of Gaia, sticking around until we get it right.

I hate to disappoint people, but this is no longer the same Lovelock. He's had a change of views, thinks environmentalism has gone too far, renewable energy is a scam and is a fan of the British Empire and Brexit. Even The Spectator, a right-wing rag, calls his views "surprisingly reactionary"
posted by vacapinta at 5:05 AM on May 19 [5 favorites]


Sigh. Milkshake Lovelock?
posted by The Bellman at 7:07 AM on May 19 [2 favorites]


I'm choosing to interpret it as the form the mental toll of age has taken on him. Some people lose their memory and become cconfused and aggressive. Some turn hard right (or in other words, become confused and aggressive).

It's a real shame though.
posted by Dysk at 8:08 AM on May 19 [1 favorite]


c. the lamp is blocking too much of the scientist's bookcase

- this is no longer the same Lovelock -- posted by vacapinta

an obfuscatory lamp, how novel
posted by Iris Gambol at 11:02 AM on May 19


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