Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

RFID tags in $20 bills?

There’s a Web site that claims that the new $20 contains an RFID chip. Since I do a fair amount of thinking about RFID these days– or more accurately, the technology keeps insinuating itself into various projects I’m working on– I thought I’d test the claim for myself.

Supposedly, if you put a new $20 in a microwave, the chip– located in one of Andrew Jackson’s eyes– will blow up, setting the bill on fire. So, in the name of science, I took a new $20, popped it into the microwave at work, and stood back.

After 30 seconds, still no pyrotechnics

I microwaved it for about a minute and a half, and nothing blew up. Though I did get several strange looks from my colleagues.

The Web site that made the original claim now adds that “We want to make it clear that $20 bills will only ‘pop’ or ‘explode’ in certain microwaves.” Sociologists of science would immediately recognize the beginnings of a classic controversy: is this a stable phenomenon? Is it real? The question now becomes, under what circumstances can the phenomenon be replicated or not? And are those circumstances sufficiently logical to save the phenomenon, and to answer objections that this is too localized a phenomenon to be considered real?

Okay, believers, your move.

[To the tune of Daryl Hall & John Oates, “Out of Touch,” from the album Big Bam Boom.]


  1. under what circumstances can the phenomenon be replicated or not?

    Surely any *stack* of paper placed in a microwave will display the behavior they claim, since some part of the stack at some point will hit flashpoint and ignite, burning outward through the stack from that point.

    Another question would be, at what point is the phenomenon ever actually observed?

  2. thorough testing should be done.

    Some $20s may have this supposed RFID tag while others may not.

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