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.
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.