August 31, 2020

We Are Constantly Bombarded by Cosmic Rays!

I first heard of cosmic rays last year while listening to a Radiolab podcast titled “Bit Flip”, produced by Jad Albumrad. The premise sounded completely far-fetched, as if from a 1950s Science Fiction B-film (insert Theremin music here), but these are not the type of “rays” one would think of in said films. The podcast reported that one segment of a democratic election in a European country was completely subverted and concluded with incorrect (and impossible) results for the wrong candidate—all because of cosmic rays!

Over the years, various pieces of electronics have been affected by cosmic rays—“atom fragments that rain down on the Earth from outside of the solar system”1 potentially created by supernovas. What?!? Yes, that’s right. We are constantly being bombarded by “atom fragments” that may have originated from an exploding star some millions of light years away (give or take a few hundred thousand). These invisible space invaders have not only caused elections to be mis-calculated, but have been blamed for cars with electronic engine components to accelerate at random while wreaking havoc with satellites and airplanes (partly the reason for now having triple redundancy systems in all airplanes).

While I do not want cosmic rays to cause any life-threatening issues by way of our electronics, it amazes me that something like this has been occurring for decades now and most of us are totally unaware. Yet another thing “out there” that I marvel at in this vast creation. On a humorous note to close, not when anything strange happens with our electronics, my wife and I turn to one another and shout “Cosmic rays!”

Take a listen to the “Bit Flip” podcast on Radiolab. You won’t be disappointed!

Pax,
Peter

1 “What Are Cosmic Rays?”, Space.com

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