Wi-Fi

Peter Cochrane's Blog: Wi-fi radiation scare

Some people are still trying to prove negatives...

Written on the Ipswich to London train and dispatched to silicon.com via the City of Westminster free (for a trial period) wi-fi service

A long time ago when our planet was less developed than today, mankind invented the spear. And what an invention! Food on the hoof could be killed at a distance and the tribes prospered.

But then people reported getting headaches when they stood too close to the rush of air the spears created. Investigators could not prove there was no link so safety limits were decided upon. The problem diminished only to resurface year-on-year on a regular basis, until it gradually faded in the minds of those suffering headaches. Ultimately it was realised that a full stomach was a far bigger upside than the potential and unprovable link with headache manifestation.

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Sometime later the bow and arrow was invented and overtook the spear as the primary killing tool. The net impact was vastly improved killing accuracy and range. Even more food and skins for clothing meant even bigger tribes and a better lifestyle for everyone.

But guess what? Those damn headaches came back. And of course, the rush of air was now considerably more - you could actually hear it. There just had to be a link!

A new team of investigators got on the job but couldn't prove any link at all. Of course the headache crew pointed out that the onus was on the investigators to prove there was no link, and of course they could not. So the old safety standards formulated for the spear were wheeled out and made even more stringent.

All over the planet archers were warned of the risks associated by the rush of air and special protective headgear was devised. Over time the headache problem came and went in regular cycles but ultimately the issue disappeared. Throughout all of this the media had a field day, running scare stories and fielding interviews with members of the public and archers themselves.

Fast forward to the modern world and we see a cyclic repetition of this story with the introduction of every new technology: gas and electricity for heat, light and appliances, wireless and television.

But perhaps the biggest ballyhoo is yet to come! Fears that mobile phones and wi-fi cook your brain will be nothing compared to future concerns over WiMax. And yet strangely no one has spotted that domestic microwave ovens with faulty doors have a 1,000-fold greater density of radiation than wi-fi - or, even worse, the potential damage to thumbs and fingers that suffer radiation from car keys and electronic devices such as digital cameras, MP3 players, laptops, PCs, PDAs, portable TVs and radios.

Speaking of which, recently I was interested to read about a woman who had designed radiation-proof headgear using fine wire gauze to ward off electronic signals which she believes are making her ill.

What a strange world we now live in. It is as if in the thousands of years since we invented the spear and the bow we have learned absolutely nothing. I sometimes wonder if the general levels of understanding and rationality have diminished since that time as we seem to be rushing headlong into witchcraft and superstition as a decision-making paradigm.

All our advances as a species are down to the assembly of a body of knowledge based upon repeatable experience and observation, experimentation, theory and proof. One of our key findings is that proving a negative is impossible and efforts in that direction often lead to mistakes and tragedy.

Perhaps the best and most cruel example of this is the medieval ducking stool. If the unfortunate victim died they were deemed innocent, and if they lived they were obviously guilty and were killed. This is the level of thinking now being applied to the feared mobile phone and wi-fi radiation risk.

To my mind it is truly remarkable that the witch hunters are back in this 21st century, applying 17th century ignorance and fear. Whatever happened to our education system: rational thought, proof by weight of numbers and experience, and the balance of potential risk and benefit?

We have had more than 60 years' experience with high power military and police radios at head height or close to the head. In the last 25 years more than two billion mobile phones have been deployed - all with no reported and confirmed ill-effects - but millions of lives have been saved. Those reporting hot ears and headaches should stop pressing the handset to their ear so hard! A small space or very light contact creates a far better experience.

About

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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