Under Earth’s protective magnetic field, we don’t usually need to worry too much about the health effects of cosmic radiation – although it’s something that’s known to impact astronauts in space, and even passengers travelling in airplanes.
But the same can’t be said for our technological systems – fierce solar storms can wreak havoc on Earth’s communication networks, and new research shows that even ordinary levels of cosmic radiation can have a disruptive effect on our personal devices.
“This is a really big problem, but it is mostly invisible to the public,” says electrical engineer Bharat Bhuva from Vanderbilt University. To see just how big the problem is, Bhuva and his team took 16-nanometre computer chips – the kind used in many of today’s consumer PCs – and exposed them to a neutron beam, in an attempt to replicate what happens when cosmic radiation penetrates our atmosphere.
When cosmic rays collide with Earth’s magnetic field, they create cascades of secondary particles – including energetic neutrons, muons, and pions.
Millions of these particles strike our bodies every second, and while they aren’t thought to have any effect on our health, they can interfere with the operation of microelectronic circuitry. When these particles interact with integrated circuits, they can actually alter or ‘flip’ individual bits of data stored in memory – a phenomenon that’s called a single-event upset (SEU).
Most of the time, such an event probably wouldn’t create much of a problem. An app running on your smartphone or PC might glitch somehow, making a miscalculation, but it’s probably not something you’ll notice for more than a moment. But in some cases, SEUs could have drastic and potentially far-reaching consequences. In 2003, a ‘bit flip’ in a Belgian electronic voting machine gave one candidate in the election an extra 4,096 votes, before the mistake was caught. Even more worrying – the avionics system of a Qantas passenger jet malfunctioned due to a suspected SEU in 2008, forcing the aircraft into an abrupt dive that injured about a third of the passengers on board. (1)
A particle costing a life.
A life being born from a particle.
Universe ridiculing life.
Universe praising life.
But could life be unimportant?
Could life be important?
What if there was another answer?
An answer which negated both questions?
Seek the meaning of life and death in irony.
It is not the words or conscious thought the ones who will guide you.
It is the music. During an Aeschylus tragedy…