Why are you required to have an item in the microwave oven while it is operating?
When a microwave oven is cooking food, electrons move rhythmically back and forth inside the magnetron tube and create the microwaves. These microwaves flow through a metal pipe and into the cooking chamber, where they are absorbed by the water in the food and thus heat the food (the twisting back and forth of the water molecules, described elsewhere on this page, not only heats the food—it also absorbs the microwaves). If there is no food in the cooking chamber, the microwaves build up in the cooking chamber until they are so intense that large numbers of them flow backward through the pipe to the magnetron. These microwaves reenter the magnetron and disrupt the motion of electrons inside it. The magnetron begins to misbehave and can be damaged as a result. To avoid such damage, you want to be sure that there is something in the cooking chamber to absorb the microwaves before they return to the magnetron and cause trouble. In short, don’t run the microwave empty for any long periods of time.