Tuesday February 21, 2017

Computer Crashes May Be Due to Forces beyond Our Solar System

The next time your computer or smartphone glitches out, you may have something to blame other than shoddy hardware, sloppy programming, or mischievous gremlins. It turns out that space magic (i.e., electrically charged particles generated by cosmic rays) can interfere with our earthly devices at any time by altering bits of data stored in memory. In one documented case from 2008, a "bit flip" screwed up an airliner’s flight control systems and forced the plane to dive hundreds of feet down in half a minute, smashing its passengers into the ceiling.

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When cosmic rays traveling at fractions of the speed of light strike the Earth’s atmosphere they create cascades of secondary particles including energetic neutrons, muons, pions and alpha particles. Millions of these particles strike your body each second. Despite their numbers, this subatomic torrent is imperceptible and has no known harmful effects on living organisms. However, a fraction of these particles carry enough energy to interfere with the operation of microelectronic circuitry. When they interact with integrated circuits, they may alter individual bits of data stored in memory. This is called a single-event upset or SEU.