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Last updateFri, 20 May 2022 10am

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‘Bit flips’ & other things that go bump in the night

Continuing with last week’s tale, what is this mysterious thing that can cause a computer malfunction that almost made an airliner fall from the sky, and could also causing intermittent and unexplainable behavior of your computer or smartphone?

The answer is cosmic rays and high energy radiation from outer space.

The planet Earth and everything on it is being constantly bombarded by these rays. These particles are 90 percent protons, none percent are helium nuclei, and one percent are heavier nuclei.  Some come from our sun. Other high energy cosmic rays moving close to the speed of light come from exploding stars, supernovas in deep space. These invisible speeding bullets are constantly raining down on us.

When one of these particles pierces a transistor or other semiconductor it has the capacity to sometimes strike in just the right place to create a large number of free charge carriers. These electrons could cause a “bit flip,” changing a byte of the computer’s binary language from a one to a zero or vice versa.

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