- Cosmic radiation from exploding stars outside our solar system can cause electronics to malfunction.
- There are several instances when cosmic radiation was suspected to have a major impact on electronics, like throwing off the voting numbers during an important election in Belgium, and even causing braking issues in Toyota vehicles that led to a 2009 recall of over 9 million cars.
- Cosmic radiation is a concern, but it’s well-managed in electronics today. It’s almost a non-event in today’s standard.
- It’s so well-controlled, in fact, that few even know that cosmic radiation could have an impact on our electronics.
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Aside from all the hacking, security, and privacy uncertainties we face every day by using electronic devices, there’s another little-known threat that could wreak havoc across a wide range of electronic devices: cosmic rays.
A Radiolab podcast that aired in May revealed how tiny, charged particles violently expelled from exploding stars beyond our solar system — otherwise known as cosmic radiation — hit the Earth and slam into our technology in total silence. These particles could have had a hand in some pretty scary events in the past.
There’s one key thing you need to know about cosmic rays and how they affect technology: cosmic rays have the power to “bit flip.”
That’s to say cosmic radiation can flip a “1” in a computer program’s binary code to “0,” or vice versa. That might not seem like much, but computers rely entirely on an accurate set of binary instructions, which are comprised of millions of ones and zeroes. To a computer “1” is an entirely different instruction than “0.” A bit flip can cause computers and electronics to do things they’re not meant to do.
Read more: A ghostly particle detected in Antarctica has led astronomers to a super-massive spinning black hole called a ‘blazar’
The only plausible explanation
Take the corruption of an election in Belgium in 2003, for example.
In the district of Schaerbeek in Brussels, Belgium, one specific polling station during the 2003 election registered over 4,000 votes in favor of the Communist Party. The problem was that those 4,000 extra votes didn’t match up with the total population number of the town of Schaerbeek. The Communist Party received “more votes than there were voters” at that polling station, Radiolab’s Simon Adler said in the podcast.
Clearly, this posed a problem: a nation’s political identity was at stake.
Through some clever mathematics and investigation — and after ruling out software or hardware bugs, or even voting fraud — it was eventually discovered that a bit flip caused by cosmic rays was among the only plausible explanations for the malfunctioning voting system.
It happened again in 2009. That year, Toyota issued a recall on more than 9 million vehicles worldwide due to sudden and unintended acceleration, and people couldn’t use their brakes because the controls were all computerized (Toyota was ahead of the game at the time when it came to vehicle technology).
It was a pretty dramatic — and tragic — episode. People were killed. Someone was even released from prison because they were wrongfully charged with running people over due to a Toyota that accelerated uncontrollably, according to Radiolab’s podcast.
When experts dug into the problems with Toyota’s cars at the time, it was found that many of the issues were caused by — you guessed it — a bit flip.
It’s even speculated that the exploding Samsung Galaxy Note 7 battery fiasco could have been caused by cosmic rays, Bharat Bhuva, a professor of computer and electrical engineering at Vanderbilt University, told Business Insider. Bhuva has dedicated a large chunk of his work to studying the effects of cosmic rays.
However, the evidence so far that cosmic rays were behind Samsung’s fiasco isn’t as strong as it is for the Belgium election or the Toyota recall, Bhuva said. Plus, Samsung’s official findings suggest that the exploding batteries were caused by erroneous battery design and defects.
Read more: We now know why Samsung Galaxy Note 7 batteries kept exploding
Before hearing about the events that were potentially affected by cosmic rays, the word “bit flip” seemed harmless. But remember: Computers only understand the instructions they’re given — it’s either a one or a zero to them, a “yes” or a “no.” And that a “yes” can be silently and randomly flipped to a “no” at any given time is a scary prospect when we’re delegating more and more tasks to computers.
“This is a big concern,” Bhuva said. “You cannot stop neutrons [cosmic radiation] without putting 10 feet of concrete right in front of your cellphone, for example, or your laptop.”
Essentially, there’s no practical way to shield our electronics from cosmic rays.
We’re in good hands
But the aim here isn’t to cast fear, uncertainty, and doubt. The tech and scientific industries have known about cosmic rays since the 1960s, and the events detailed above occurred when more old-fashioned analog systems were making way for new digital, computerized systems, and when the effects of cosmic rays on electronics weren’t as well understood.
These days, cosmic rays might be a concern, but we’re in good hands. Companies in aerospace, defense, aviation, consumer electronics, chip manufacturers, automotive industry, communications industry, IT infrastructure, and more are aware of the effects of cosmic rays and have worked with Bhuva to implement safety and mitigation measures, he said.
These days, cosmic rays are so well-managed and correctable that it’s almost a non-event. If they weren’t, “our electronics would be facing all kinds of problems right now,” Bhuva said.
Tech analyst Avi Greengart told Business Insider that he consults for companies on these kinds of things, and cosmic rays never even come up.
In fact, companies I asked about cosmic rays had to go deeper and ask their engineering departments about it. Unfortunately, none have returned with answers yet.
Cosmic rays seem like one of those things that’s largely taken care of, but the fight against them goes unsung. It’s also a “right place at the right time” kind of thing, where the chances of cosmic rays flipping the bits in our electronics is sparse and random. And so far, there are few — if any — major catastrophes that can attributed to cosmic rays, or at least that we know of. Plus, in all these events, it’s not a total and absolute, 100% guarantee that cosmic rays were actually the cause of these malfunctions. It’s just a plausible explanation, especially when there’s little else to explain for a malfunction.
Even Bhuva said it’s not a major concern for most people, which may be why cosmic rays are a little-known threat. It’s just not something that most of us are likely to experience on a regular basis. And if we do, we might not even know about it. A device might malfunction briefly, perhaps as a result of cosmic rays, and we’ll pass it off as a random glitch. Gadgets glitch, right?
“We know how it happens. We know how to take care of it,” Bhuva said.
Make sure you listen to Radiolab’s podcast episode called “Bit Flip” below. It’s absolutely fascinating.
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