The Microwave of 4017

Sam Cox investigates the mystery of the missing microwave

Deep in the bowels of the Arts Block, a war wages. A battle of rights. A need for freedom and justice : the fight for readily available electromagnetic radiation for our leftovers.

In an effort to increase student spaces across the Trinity Campus, Room 4017 was allocated on a 1 year trial basis as an area of rest and reprieve. Opened in October of last year, the room was furnished with funds from the Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union and the Director of Student Services.

And one comfort purchased was the ability to reheat, with the Microwave of 4017. Until one day, when the microwave disappeared without a trace…

Where’d it go?

“McNulty resisted his initial plans to file a case of theft”

Responding initially to the disappearance at the Christmas Students’ Council, McNulty seemed outraged: “It was a two month thing, and then they just went into the room and took it.” Who “they” is was initially unclear. With no notice, the miniature oven had simply vanished.

With equal difficulty finding a permanent home for the wandering microwave of the Hamilton (Initially resting in the Pharmacy department, photos of the microwave sitting forlorn outside the Biology labs soon appeared on Facebook), frustrations were clearly high within the Union over attempts to thwart their effort from this unknown party.

Despite the fact that “there is a microwave available for every level of the Arts Block”, accessible to staff, McNulty resisted his initial plans to file a case of theft, and instead worked with the English Department and the College to smooth over relations.

Speaking to Tom Merriman, Head of Safety and Risk management in Trinity, he tells me:

“Kitchen equipment is intended for use in a designated kitchen and a kitchen will generally have certain features […] It is not appropriate to allow the placement of heat generating equipment such as microwave ovens or toasters in a random fashion or without clear responsibility for the equipment.”

“They do want to help us with it,” McNulty explains. According to him, most of the issues, such as cleanliness have been solved and friction has been reduced.

According to Merriman, “regardless of whether such equipment is provided for use by staff or students the same standards apply to their location, management, use and maintenance”.

And yet, for now, only cold leftovers fill the room.

So What’s the Threat?

“After all, even the Great Fire of London started in a simple bakery on Pudding Lane”

The sabbatical officers sit crowded around the monitor, scribbling notes from the strained audio coming from the hidden camera peering from the microwave. “Hemingway’s compensatory macho-ism? Genius…” scribbles Rowley.

“It’s the exam answers we need,” O’Loughlin reprimands.

“Events need themes Aoibhinn, and they have to come from somewhere,” the Ents officer justifies, while sketching a note of a slain Marlin centrepiece.

Okay, so maybe not. But if the theft of the innermost secrets of the English Department isn’t the reason for the removal of the Microwave of 4017, what is?

McNulty explained it has been described as a wedge: “If one microwave goes in, then a toaster goes in next, then people put tinfoil in the microwave,” serving as a danger in the college.

After all, even the Great Fire of London started in a simple bakery on Pudding Lane.

While I’m given no specific examples, Merriman states: “There has been a number of incidents with microwave ovens and toasters that were either inappropriately located or improperly managed or used which resulted in total evacuations of buildings, including the Arts Building.”

Researching cases of fires caused by microwave oven turns up few results. Other than the Daily Mail reporting a series of “blazes” in 2013 caused by Eccles Cakes catching fire in Lancashire, there seems to be little published evidence of actual fires.

Evidently, the same year of the microwave threat, reported a number of microwaves turning themselves on, catching fire and even the glass doors shattering.

The company producing the microwaves in question, Whirlpool, said the following in response to Consumer Report:  “We have determined that it was possible for certain keypads in this specific model microwave to develop unintended electrical paths, which could cause the keypad to beep, or very rarely, start the microwave oven.”

Not quite sentient microwaves trying to burn down the Arts Block, but a threat worth considering nonetheless. And with the universal dismissal of Kellyanne Conway’s claims that microwaves can be used as surveillance equipment, maybe microwaves aren’t so bad after all.

But how much danger could a microwave pose? In fact, how do the magical heating devices even work?

The Science Made Simple

“So if all microwaves do is move water molecules, what’s the danger? Why is tinfoil going to lead to an evacuation of the Arts Block?”

To understand “The Microwave”, you first have to understand what heating is. At a basic level, heat is energy. When you apply heat, you’re increasing the movement of the molecules.

Microwaves work by creating an electromagnetic field. This field causes the water molecules in food to rock back and forth, heating them up. This is why some foods heat better than others (a higher water content means food will head faster, as there are more molecules to vibrate. Think about how when you reheat a pie, the filling is boiling hot when the crust might still be cold).

This field is one of the reasons food heats unevenly in the microwave. When your soup is hot at the top and cold at the bottom, it’s because of the location of the field within the oven. At certain spaces, there is a high degree of movement of water molecules, while in others, virtually none. The rotating table you put your plate on is an effort to offset this, but your soup will still need stirring.

So if all microwaves do is move water molecules, what’s the danger? Why is tinfoil going to lead to an evacuation of the Arts Block?

While food absorbs the microwaves, other materials don’t. The radiation will simply pass through glass and plastic, leaving them unheated (although the heated food will heat the container afterwards via conduction, which is why your bowl is hot when you take it out).

Metal, however, will reflect the radiation unexpectedly. This can cause “arcing” which damages your microwave, burning small holes in the walls. So with metal definitely being something to avoid, are there other dangers? Yes, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA): “Super-heated water (water heated past its boiling temperature) does not appear to be boiling and occurs when water is heated by itself in a clean cup. If super-heating has occurred, a slight disturbance or movement such as picking up the cup, or pouring in a spoon full of instant coffee, may result in a violent eruption with the boiling water exploding out of the cup.”

Scary stuff.

Despite this, for the student’s of 4017 though, there’s hope for the future. Along with McNulty’s promise that relations have been smoothed out, Merriman says: “ I understand that proposals are being developed by the University and the student representative bodies”.

Until then, it’s cold lasagne all around.

Sam Cox

Sam Cox is a Staff Videographer at Trinity News. He is a Senior Sophister Psychology student, and a former Crossword Editor, Features Editor and Assistant Features Editor.