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Does a Refrigerator Make a Good Faraday Cage?

The other week, the New York Times reported that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden was understandably cautious about planning his departure from Hong Kong to Russia (emphasis mine):

“It was a cloak-and-dagger affair. Mr. Snowden wore a cap and sunglasses and insisted that the assembled lawyers hide their cellphones in the refrigerator of the home where he was staying, to block any eavesdropping. Then began a two-hour conversation during which Mr. Snowden was deeply dismayed to learn that he could spend years in prison without access to a computer during litigation over whether he would be granted asylum here or surrendered to the United States.

Wait. What? Why are the cellphones getting chilled? Snowden’s idea, presumably, was that the refrigerator would act as a Faraday cage. As I explained last year when talking about the effectiveness of tin foil helmets, a Faraday cage is an enclosure made up of a conducting material that shields its interior from external electrostatic charges and electromagnetic radiation by distributing them around its exterior and dissipating them. While these enclosures are sometimes actual cages, they come in many forms, and most of us have probably dealt with one type or another. The scan rooms that MRI machines sit in and the shielding on USB cables, for example, both provide protection as Faraday cages. Inside such a cage, signals to and from these lawyers’ cellphones would be blocked, preventing them from being used to surveil the meeting.

In theory, a sturdy metal fridge should make a good Faraday cage. In practice, some fridges don’t really cut a cell phone off from the rest of the world. Make magazine writer Michael Colombo tried it out with his home refrigerator, and was able to make a call to a phone inside of it. He had better results with a metal cocktail shaker.

I put my fridge to the test, too, and got the same result. Calls and data transmissions went right through. I have a glass cocktail shaker, so that's not an option for me if I'm trying to stay hidden. I wondered if there was a decent kitchen Faraday cage available to people like me, or the poor souls who have no cocktail shaker at all.

I lurked on some survivalist message boards for a while (not an activity I can recommend) and learned that a lot of doomsday hobbyists plan on relying on their microwave to protect their electronics if the government/aliens/New World Order tries to mess with them with an electromagnetic pulse. This makes sense, since, unlike a fridge, a microwave oven is actually designed specifically to shield the electromagnetic radiation of microwaves and keep them from getting out of the appliance. If electromagnetic radiation can’t get out, then it shouldn’t be able to get in either.

Sure enough, calls and data sent to my phone while it sat in my old GE microwave never went through. I could see it sitting in there, but there was no ring, no alerts. When I pulled it out, there was no missed call notification, either. So, the next time you need to keep prying eyes and ears away from your phone, your best bet seems to be tossing it in the microwave or a (metal) cocktail shaker. Just don’t forget about it when you heat up some leftovers or make a Manhattan.

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Big Questions
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
Astrid Riecken, Getty Images

This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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