Let’s do a bit of science.
Maybe, like me, you have had various social media invaded by people making all sorts of complaints about something called 5G. That’s the newest mobile data standard. Unless you are really special, that doesn’t work on your phone yet, but the networks are being installed, and newer handsets using them will be available soon, probably starting at the top end of the price range.
5G just means the fifth generation, the first was basic cellphones, the second was text messaging, 4G allows internet, and 5G will allow you to control the space shuttle, or something. If you click too far into Facebook or YouTube, you’d be forgiven for thinking that an apocalypse was planned, something between the worst nightmares of the antivaxxers and those people who say that their thoughts are controlled by the CIA via a chip in their brain. So I really just want to give the basic scientific information here.
5G is data transmitted over radio waves. Just like any other form of data transmitted through the air, cellphone voice or data signals, FM radio, broadcast TV or your home wifi. All of them are, technically, radiation. So is light – by which I mean the light that your eyes use to see things around you, and so are magnetic waves, the ones that spin the needle on a compass.
Some conspiracy theorists have been saying vague things that imply that 5G uses some weird special type of radiation that is dangerous or untested. In reality, 5G uses frequencies that are already in use by home wifi systems and digital TV broadcasts. Sure, the content of that signal is new technology, but the content of the signal has no relevance to the frequency it’s broadcast on.
So where does that all collide with radiation that we know can kill us? Basically, the electromagnetic spectrum is split in two halves – ionizing radiation and non-ionizing radiation. Non-ionizing radiation is basically too weak to strip the electrons off atoms, it doesn’t create ions. Ionizing radiation is the dangerous stuff. It can knock electrons off atoms and break molecules, like your DNA, which can trigger cancer.
All radiation fits on a spectrum, the electromagnetic spectrum, with lower and higher frequencies. Imagine if you could turn the dial on your radio, and keep turning it. If you turned down and down, you would eventually be picking up the earth’s magnetic waves, the ones that turn the compass needle.
If you could turn it up and up, you would eventually pick up light waves, first blue light then the higher frequency of red light. Turn it further and you would get UV rays from the sun, x-rays, and so on. But there is a breakpoint that it is important to know about. It exists at a frequency just above what we can see as visible light; light doesn’t hurt us, but UV rays – radiation from the sun – can give us sunburn. This is literally radiation damage. UV rays, and anything with a higher frequency, x-rays, gamma rays, they’re bad news. That’s why anyone giving you an x-ray wears a lead apron; and gamma rays, that’s Chernobyl territory, you don’t want to know.
But, the 5G conspiracy theorists say, there’s so much radiation about these days, surely that can’t be good for us. They’re wrong for two reasons. Firstly, non-ionizing radiation just doesn’t have enough energy to do any harm. It almost doesn’t matter how much of it there is. Think of ionizing radiation like being burnt by boiling water. A teaspoonful on your skin would hurt. A cupful would be bad news. Throw a kettle of it over someone, and they are seriously injured.
Non-ionizing radiation is the equivalent of lukewarm water. It doesn’t matter if it’s a cupful, a bathfull or a whole swimming pool full. If it’s not hot, no amount of it will burn you.
Secondly humans evolved bathed in non-ionizing radiation. It’s called light. And magnetic waves. As it happens, the radio waves that we use for TV, radio, cellphones and 5G, are right in the middle of those two, between light and magnetic waves on the electromagnetic spectrum.
The strength of the lightwaves around us are millions and millions of times stronger than any radio waves – sit out on a sunny day, you can literally feel the sun, from millions of miles away, warming your skin. Magnetic waves coming from the poles of the earth, thousands of miles away, can physically move the needle on a compass. The strength of even our strongest radio transmitters, is a tiny fraction of either of those.
So why are people obsessed with being so worried about these? Not to mention the antivaccine hysteria. My advice is not to laugh at people like this. What they say may be wrong, but that doesn’t mean it is without meaning. I think that people who obsess about technology that they don’t understand are expressing an unease that they have with modernity, their lives and the world.
Patience and listening might help.