At the same time, there was unease about the new technology, in no small part because of a single word used to describe it: radiation. My mother remembers newspaper advice columns at the time fielding questions from concerned homemakers about the new devices. They were reassured of their safety, but the unease persists to this day.
What would have happened, I wonder, if instead of “microwave radiation,” they had called it “microwave light?” Both are equally accurate.
Microwave light has wavelengths shorter than radio but longer than infrared. The heat you feel off one of those overhead heaters in a garage is infrared light. Another way to think of wavelengths is colour: the wavelengths of red light are longer than violet, for example.
Microwaves are pretty useful. Some wavelengths resonate with water molecules. That means if you shine microwave light on a water-containing substance, the water molecules start to move faster, or get hot. This is how a microwave oven works.
Microwaves are also used extensively in telecommunications - your cell phone uses them, for instance (typically between 900 Mhz and 1,800 Mhz). Microwaves are used because they can carry much higher information density than radio waves. So, when you’re using your cell phone, you’re using a microwave transceiver RIGHT BESIDE YOUR BRAIN (insert terrified scream here, and yes, I’m being sarcastic).
Popular phrases such as “nuke some dinner” don’t help. People are afraid of radiation, or at least what they think it radiation is. Light does radiate, even if you can’t see it (as I mentioned with the infrared heater). Incidentally, any incandescent bulb actually gives off much more infrared than visible light, which is why you can use them as a heat source.
Also, unless you’ve been very careful or very lucky, we pigment-challenged types have almost certainly had one or more radiation burns in our lives. This is because the shorter the wavelength of the light, the more energy it carries.
Light starts to get dangerous to us once you get into the ultraviolet range, something our sun is quite good at producing. So public health folks urge us to be careful, wear clothing, put on sunscreen to protect from radiation burns that can increase our risk of skin cancer. But we don’t often think of these as radiation burns; we just lament that we were careless and got a sunburn.
Words carry both meaning and emotion. “Light” and “radiation” can often be used interchangeably, but they carry much different emotional baggage. “Natural” and “synthetic” can be used to describe the same product, but how do these words make you feel? How about “organic” or “industrial?” “Corporate” vs “co-op?”
So, when crafting and consuming messages for ourselves and our clients, let us choose our words carefully – not only for meaning but for emotion.
After a fair bit of reading, rumination and research, I put together a couple of presentations examining the issues, and hopefully, putting forward a few ideas to help science communicators do our work. While the full presentation and discussion takes about an hour, in the spirit of Internet Age attentions spans and busy lives, I’ve condensed the ideas into this list.
the challenge was to fit the best of what they had shared into limited space. Other interview subjects took the classic cowboy approach: stoic answers of one or two words, no matter what leading questions I threw at them.
While you can’t control your interview subject entirely, you can at least come prepared with some research, questions and some tricks to get them talking. Here are a few to start with.
Be on time. One of my former profs used to tell a story of how she once went to interview a busy executive. She apologetically showed up 20 minutes late, but he graciously welcomed her into his office. Just as she was starting to hit her stride, the exec glanced at his wrist, thanked her for coming, and ushered her out of his office before heading to his next meeting.
Be prepared. Research the person, their work, and their subject area. You’re after new material with an interview, so don’t waste time asking questions about foundation stuff you could easily find elsewhere.
Create a cheat sheet. Take some quiet time to develop a set of questions. Often, you won’t use it much, but it will give you confidence that you won’t get tongue-tied with nothing to ask. I’ve found that I’ll start with my list but then generally ignore it as I run through the interview. At the end, I’ll check it to see if I’ve missed anything.
Ask clear questions. While you want to avoid “yes, no” questions, you should keep it simple. Don’t ramble on, touching several subjects before finally coming to rest on a three-part question. Stay focused so your interview subject can easily grasp what you’re asking.
Stay focused. Certainly, spend a little time on casual conversation to break the ice and get relaxed. But once you’re into the interview, don’t wander off into irrelevant alleys. Stay on topic, listen closely to your interview subject, and spot interesting avenues of conversation instead.
“So, let me see if I’ve got this right…” Interviewing experts means translating expert-ese into plain language. If you’re not sure you understand something, paraphrase it and read it back to your subject to make sure you’ve got it down.
Don’t pass up the chance to shut up. When conversation lags, you may feel the urge to fill the silence with your own chatter. Wait a moment. Master the pregnant pause. Let your interview subject tell you something interesting instead.
Pay attention on the way out. You’ve turned off your recorder and closed your notebook. Everyone relaxes. Small talk ensues; you ask a few casual questions on the way out the door. And your interview subject suddenly gives you the best quote of the interview! Relax. Shake their hand, close the door, then pull out your notepad and get that quote down on paper while it’s still fresh, along with any other final observations.
Evolution doesn’t necessarily create the best solution; just a solution that allows you to have more kids. In the case of Homo sapiens – us – evolution shaped our minds but left vulnerabilities and quirks that everyone from governments to marketers can exploit.
A case in point is some people’s tendency to fear new foods – particularly those borne of hard-to-understand processes. “Eat nothing your grandmother wouldn’t recognize,” is a mantra in some circles. It’s also a common logical fallacy called the “appeal to antiquity.”
From an evolutionary perspective, this is a perfectly reasonable, perhaps the best, standpoint. It’s safer to eat what you remember eating as a child and more risky to try something new.* Presumably, those bold individuals who tried a bevy of possible new edibles died more often. Their more wary cousins survived to become our ancestors and passed along their native caution to us.
When potatoes were first introduced to Europe from South America, people would have nothing to do with them, rejecting them as unhealthy and even un-Christian (in Russia, they were suspiciously called “the Devil’s apples.”) Perhaps not an unreasonable reaction – potatoes are part of the nightshade family and parts of the plant contain toxic alkaloids. Yet with a little knowledge on how to prepare them, potatoes proved their value and eventually became the fourth largest food crop in the world, after rice, wheat, and corn (another crop from the Americas).
As people became comfortable with new crops, they were not only accepted, but taken for granted. Eventually, they gained the tested-by-tradition stamp of Grandma’s kitchen.
As science progressed, naturalists observed plants and animals and put them into neat slots based on their characteristics. Those able to breed and have viable offspring were put in discrete categories called species. Certainly, there were hybrids such as mules, geeps and ligers, but these were exceptions to what became accepted as the natural order of things.
This setup served humanity well for hundreds of years. Agriculturalists could breed different kinds of sheep to produce varieties with finer wool or wheat with shorter stems and more seeds. Without realizing it, we were practicing a sort of forced evolution: those animals and plants with traits humans wanted got to survive and reproduce.
Then we learned about genetics and everything changed. Plant breeders learned how to “speed up” evolution, using radiation or chemicals to cause changes, or mutations, in DNA, the molecule that stores the chemical blueprints for all life on Earth. Most mutations are either benign or harmful, but some are useful. For example, one set of mutations produced grapefruit with flesh that was pink and sweet rather than yellow and bitter.
Later, humans learned how to take the next step – genetic engineering. Rather than cause a bunch of random mutations and hope for the best, we could identify the genes we were interested in and move only those genes into our target plant or animal. With this method, we created crops that can fight off insect pests all on their own and fish that grow faster, using less feed and energy to grow to market weight.
Of course, people freaked out. Moving genes from bacteria to corn and eggplant? From an ocean pout to an Atlantic salmon? That’s unnatural! (Although, truth be told, cross-species gene transfer happens in nature all the time).
Again, we might blame it on our own evolutionary baggage. Nature is perceived as good, wholesome, familiar. Even natural hazards such as poisonous snakes aren’t terribly scary – we just know to avoid them. But unknown hazards are a different story.
Consider a couple of early Homo erectus out on the African savanna. That rustle in the grass? It might be the wind; it might be a lion. Keep on walking and you might get eaten. Sprint for the nearest tree and climb to safety and the worst that happens is you feel silly for being spooked so easily. But fraidy-cats survive to have kids. We are the descendants of fraidy-cats.
Of course this leaves us vulnerable to savvy activists and marketers that know how to use our fear of the unknown to separate us from our money. “X causes cancer!” “GMOs are bad!” “Vaccines aren’t safe!”
Evolution has shaped our minds and left flaws, but these minds also have the ability to reason. It is this quality that allows us to examine our fears. We can discover if our fears are real or simply imaginary monsters under our beds.
*H/T to James Wong (@botanygeek) for this idea.
I'm a science writer based in Saskatoon, Canada. While I write on a wide range of topics, I most often find myself exploring life and environmental sciences as well as the social science aspects of science communications. Examples include agricultural biotechnology, food and water security, and public response to innovations in genetic engineering and energy production.