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I nuked a roach! He didn’t die! Why?

Dear Cecil:

Once again I feel compelled to solicit your enlightenment. Your answer to my inquiry regarding my childhood slaughter of houseflies was most impressive. While it did not drive me to racquetball, neither did it repress what appears to be a deeply rooted psychotic desire to decimate the insect population. I have killed again.

Last week I visited my cousin, who is at least as deviate as myself, and whose domicile is infested with cockroaches. We conceived the notion of putting one of the verminous creatures into the microwave oven. When one strolled conspicuously onto the counter top, we seized it, imprisoned it in a bottle, and inserted it into the death chamber.

Two minutes passed without result. Four minutes. Five. Disgruntled, we persevered for ten more minutes before it became apparent that we had a corpse on our hands. Our question is this: if water boils in three minutes, what took so long for our odious deed to be accomplished?

Two Malefactors in Suspense, Chicago

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

The study of the effects of microwave ovenry on bugs is still in its infancy, unfortunately, so we can’t provide a definitive answer to this inquiry. However, several possible explanations come to mind.

(1) You did not have the microwave plugged in. In the end the cockroach may simply have died of boredom. Many worthwhile experiments have come to grief because of carelessness with the scientific apparatus.

(2) The insect you were attempting to incinerate was not really a cockroach. Your basic member of the Blattidae (cockroach) family goes into a heat stupor at about 105 degrees Fahrenheit and expires a couple degrees above that. The larvae of certain West African midges, though, will recover at least briefly from five-minute exposures to 392 degrees Fahrenheit. Possibly, therefore, what you thought was a cockroach was really a West African midge traveling incognito.

(3) Your cousin has a Popeil pocket microwave or some similar inexpensive brand that heats unevenly. Uneven heating to some extent is inherent in microwave cookery. Most manufacturers provide various methods to eliminate the problem, but some ovens have cold spots. Your intended victim may have been the beneficiary of one. Alternatively, if there was a metal cap on the bottle you trapped the cockroach in — metal in microwaves, incidentally, is definitely contraindicated — the metal may have deflected the lethal radiation, delaying death.

(4) What you took to be evidence that the cockroach was still alive was really its death throes. Permanent nerve damage generally results early on in tests of this nature. If you had administered an IQ test to the cockroach at the three-minute mark possibly you would have discovered that it had been reduced to imbecility.

(5) Seriously (well, as seriously as you can get under the circumstances), it’s generally agreed that microwave energy interacts most strongly with water. The best candidate for microwaving is something that’s uniformly moist. Cockroaches contain very little moisture — OK, very little of anything — and their external body parts are quite dry, making them less susceptible to microwaves. They do contain some moisture, of course, but given their small size and the unevenness of microwave radiation already alluded to, they can simply dodge bullets for a time.

Finally, lads, while one appreciates your efforts, I feel compelled to point out that using a 1,000-watt microwave to snuff bugs is a bit … Vietnamesque, if you take my meaning. What’s wrong with a good shot to the exoskeleton with a shoe?

Cecil Adams

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