By Ken Heartly-Wright
An international group of astronomers is calling for people to stop using their microwave ovens for 24 hours next April to give scientists a better chance of finding gravitational waves.
The ubiquitous kitchen gadgets broadcast copious amounts of electromagnetic radiation at frequencies around 2.45 GHz – exactly that of the cosmic microwave background, which bears the signature of gravitational waves from the early universe.
The call for a one-day global microwave oven ban comes just a fortnight after scientists detected B-mode polarization from the early universe using the BICEP2 telescope at the South Pole.
That discovery, which was the first evidence that the early universe went through a very rapid period of expansion known as “inflation”, was possible in part because microwave ovens are already banned at the pole.
But to make a definitive detection of primordial gravitational waves, BICEP2’s astronomers need to rule out stray signals from the estimated one billion microwave ovens used in kitchens around the world. These appliances currently interfere with their telescope’s sensitive CMB detectors.
“We are calling for everyone to leave their ready-meal lasagnes in the fridge and keep their microwave ovens firmly turned off for one day next April,” says radio astronomer Amana Range, who is running the “Switch Microwaves Off Now” (S-NOW) initiative from its headquarters in the Jodrell Bank Observatory. “We want people to keep those frozen curries in the freezer.”
Scientists working at the pole already survive for six months a year during the Antarctic winter without microwavable ready meals and Range thinks that for the rest of the world to leave their mirowave silent for a day is a small price to pay in uncovering the secrets of the universe.
In fact, Range, thinks that encouraging people to not ping their microwaves is a great example of a “citizen-science” project in action. The University of Macclesfield astronomer, who admits tucking into the occasional Marks and Spencer microwaveable lamb bhuna during long nights on the radio telescope, is already in talks with UNESCO to make the S-NOW project part of the International Year of Light.
However, not everyone is supporting the campaign. Sir Dixon Curry-Argos, head of the Small Appliance Distribution Organisation (SADO) said that microwave ovens are “a modern hearth for hard-working families”. He added, “I will be starting my day as usual with a bowl of microwaved porridge.”