Barrie Oldfield is a member and past president of the Western Australian branch of Men of the Trees and he discusses the decline of frog populations in this International Year of the Frog. He suggests that maybe electro magnetic radiation may be the reasons for this calamity.
This transcript was typed from a recording of the program. The ABC cannot guarantee its complete accuracy because of the possibility of mishearing and occasional difficulty in identifying speakers.
Robyn Williams: A few days ago I came to possess for the first time a mobile phone. I found it in the street, as the rain poured down, its screen flashing bright. I picked it up and dried it, and put it in my pocket. A few minutes later it started to vibrate. Something of an intimate shock, I must confess, though I suppose you're used to it.
The person calling was, apparently, the owner's girlfriend. Her unclothed picture was a feature on the screen. We arranged to return the phone the following day. I handed it over in a bar and made a very fast exit. So I've had a mobile phone in my life, for less than a day. I do believe Barrie Oldfield would approve.
Barrie Oldfield thinks they're killing frogs. And I do believe he's serious. Now on the face of it, the radiation coming out of a phone is so tiny it wouldn't threaten a fragile flea, let alone a frog. What's more, though frogs are certainly being exterminated by something, it's happening in places like the Andes, where phones are few.
Finally there's a perfectly clear explanation of what's going on: Chytrid fungus, brought here by fronts used in pregnancy tests way back, went feral, and spread the disease. But Barrie Oldfield thinks otherwise. He's from Men of the Trees in Perth.
Barrie Oldfield: 2008 has been designated International Year of the Frog. Scientists all over the world will be comparing notes and undertaking broad-based research into why frog populations everywhere are in decline. May I add another theory for consideration?
Frogs are being microwaved.
Ever since microwave ovens were introduced, we have been protected from our own carelessness. Apart from printed warnings all over the ovens there is also a heavily screened door preventing the escape of the lethal radiation, and the door is interlocked with an isolator switch so that the oven cannot be switched on with the door open. Microwave ovens have been in common use now for a quarter of a century. Through daily experience we've come to learn the principle by which they work. Things that are perfectly dry do not heat up at all. You can't warm plates in a microwave. Food must be moist if cooking is to take place.
Why is this? Heat is a manifestation of energy. When an object becomes warm the molecules of which it is made start to jiggle about. In a solid object the jiggling is confined to a limited space. The hotter the object becomes, the more violent the jiggling, which tends to push out the boundaries of that space, which is why most solid objects expand slightly as they get warmer. But in a liquid the molecules can move around everywhere. Their jiggling knows no bounds, so they dance around all over the place. If the applied heat is in the form of a flame under the kettle, then the jiggling is random. Molecules of water dither and jiggle, bumping into each other, bounding up and down and sideways, some slightly faster than others, some becoming caught up in mini-whirlpools. The molecules of water dance around in a truly random way.
Because the principle of microwave cooking is the excitement of water molecules by the application of ultra-high frequency radio waves, the jiggling takes on a rhythmic pattern determined by the nature of the electromagnetic radiation being applied. Think of water molecules as being like people. On a busy market day people are milling around everywhere; that's equivalent to heating water in a kettle over a gas ring. But in a military parade all the (water molecule) people are in step and going in the same direction; that's like putting a cup of coffee in the microwave to heat it up. In fact many people can actually tell by the 'zizzing' feel of the hot coffee in their mouth that it has been microwaved.
Now let's consider this form of energy known as electromagnetic radiation (EMR for short). Some of it has been around ever since the sun began to shine. Visible light is EMR, so is infra red and ultra violet. This band of frequencies gets through the Earth's natural radiation shields. So Nature has made use of this particular section of the EMR spectrum since the beginning of life on Earth. But in the late 19th century and into the 20th century, James Clark-Maxwell, Heinrich Hertz, and Guglielmo Marconi brought into existence a whole new invention based upon EMR of lower frequencies; wireless telegraph had arrived. From Marconi's first demonstration of broadcast Morse Code signals at the end of the 19th century, it took hardly a generation before amateur, public and commercial broadcasters were opening up all over the world. England's BBC began transmissions in 1920, Australia's ABC in 1932. Of course it wasn't long before television was invented, the first broadcasts starting in 1936. And World War II gave us radar, so useful for search and rescue, navigation and multinova cameras.
Today the use of wireless telegraphy is universal. Not only radio, radar and television use electromagnetic energy to carry their signals, so do mobile phones, satellite navigation systems, GPS, movement sensors, motor car immobilisers, blue toothed computers, and of course microwave ovens. In fact most of our modern world would come to an abrupt halt if all applied EMR was to cease.
We have come to accept it in every application our technologists can turn their hands to. We readily purchase every new device that comes on the market that saves us time, or physical energy, or improves communication. We're especially seduced by any novelty that is fun to use or gives an instant reward, be it a snapshot on a mobile phone, or just a cheery 'ping' when we got the sequence of button pressing correct. We never give a second thought to the possibility of there being a downside, whether to our health or that of other living things on this planet. But maybe we should, because now we live in a constant smog of radiation.
But there are some quieter places on this planet. For instance you have probably enjoyed a car ride through some of our magnificent remnant forests. If you happen to have the car radio on, you'll have noticed the reception fades, or cuts out altogether. Why is this? Well the trees are aqueous bodies. The broadcast signal is being absorbed by the sap in their trunks, branches and leaves, and little is getting through to your car aerial. Aqueous materials cannot avoid being warmed up, agitated, set in unnatural rhythmic motion, when acted upon by EMR. Furthermore, as the absorption of radio waves by moist bodies takes place, a transfer of energy also takes place, and the intensity of the radio waves is reduced. So that's one reason why so many people enjoy being in our forests. The smog of EMR is somewhat reduced.
This smog is all around us all the time. It's in our homes, our gardens, our places of work, in the streets and in the country. It's everywhere. And just like X-rays, EMR goes straight through our bodies.
Now here's an interesting experiment, something that any 12-year-old schoolboy will love to do. We're going to make a tracking device that will lead us to sources of this invisible electromagnetic radiation around the home. No, you won't need any high cost equipment. All you need is a simple portable radio, the sort that runs off two or three AA batteries. What you do is switch it on and select the AM band. You might as well tune it in to Radio National. Now, turn the volume up to maximum. Having done that, just turn the tuning knob so you can't hear any radio station at all, you're now between the broadcast stations and all you will hear is what engineers call 'white noise', a sort of soft mush.
Now walk around your home, taking your newly acquired EMR Detector and listen for the interference it picks up. Start by taking it close to your computer. Take it around the back of your computer. If the noise is still strong, go into the room beyond and see if you can hear it through the wall. Switch the computer off and try again. You'll probably find that there's still a significant amount of radiation coming from it, unless you switch it off at the wall. Try it near the printer. Now go around the house. Take it close to the telephone. If you have a fax machine, try that. You don't have to be making a call for the EMR Detector to react. You'll probably find that it will even trace the telephone line down the wall, around the skirting board, to where it comes into the house. If you have a digital clock, you might even hear it ticking!
You can even stand in the middle of the room and for some inexplicable reason there will be a spot somewhere where the noise is loud and strong. This is possibly a node where two or three sources of radiation just happen to coincide, creating a peak disturbance, like ocean waves coming from different directions crashing into each other.
What your pocket radio is detecting is a relatively low level of both electric and magnetic fields. What you discover might just urge you to switch devices off at the wall when not in use, which won't be a bad thing either. You might like to write this up as a school project. It won't win you the Nobel Prize for Physics right away, but it could take you there eventually.
Now consider the microwave oven again. It cooks the food by exciting water molecules with electromagnetic radiation. So let's think of frogs. I think you'll have got my drift by now. Frogs are one of the most aqueous creatures on the planet. All frogs have a higher content of water than the average animal. Further, they depend upon their wet skin for survival. Some frogs such as our own Water Holding Frog, Cyclorana platycephalus, can survive long periods under hyper-arid conditions simply because they wear a wet suit; their outer skin traps water against their inner skin.
It follows therefore that the frog is the most prone of all animals to the adverse effect of electromagnetic radiation. We are quite literally microwaving them with our mobile phones and everything else that emits EMR in order to operate. One might think that fish being the wettest of all creatures would suffer first. Well they swim around in a relatively large mass of water and just as the forest shields your car radio from EMR, so fish are protected by the very water of their environment.
As I've mentioned, some EMR has always been around, of course. It's the very stuff that the Sun sends out to warm the Earth, excite the chlorophyll in plant leaves, and thereby lay the foundation for energising life on this planet. But solar energy comes in surges one day apart, and in the interval of night the ether waves are almost silent. Well they were until James Clark-Maxwell, Heinrich Hertz, and Guglielmo Marconi gave us this fantastic means of communication. Now we have 'electrosmog' day and night, all over the world. There is no quiet time and no really quiet place any more.
There will always be debate on the level of radiation which might be considered safe. There will also be those who contend that all radiation brought into being through the agency of man is dangerous insofar that evolution has had no time to adapt our living organisms to it in this short period of history.
I wonder why we assume that there is never a downside to all our wonderful technologies. If a frog would only hop on my shoulder and whisper in my ear, would it tell me that the strange zizzing sensation under its skin has left it impotent?
It might also tell me to keep away from Compact Fluorescent Lamps, at least until their EMR has been eliminated.
Robyn Williams: Barrie Oldfield, talking to frogs in Perth. He offers that hypothesis as a speculation. The question is: what does an engineer think of it? Well, we shall find out next week: should you jettison your mobile phone in recognition of this Year of the Frog? Well, not till this time next Sunday perhaps.
I'm Robyn Williams.
Member and past president of Men of the Tree
Paul Raymond Doyon
Yunnan Normal University (China)
Lecturer - English and Japanese
MAT (TESOL), School for International Training
MA Advanced Japanese Studies, University of Sheffield
BA Psychology, University of California
"A 'Good Student' answers questions - but does not question answers."