Flipped off by cosmic rays: A Strange love: Space Invaders and how I learned to loathe my phone
by Jon Connell
November 10, 2012
Ever pick up your phone - or any piece of computer equipment for that matter, start to do whatever it was that you planned to do and suddenly — BAM! the thing just sits there dumb as a bag of hammers... or maybe some garbage appears on the screen or maybe your spreadsheet inexplicably vaporizes. End result you can't do what you planned to do.
Anyone that lived through the development of today's PC will be all too familiar with digital glitches. They are less common today yes, but they still happen — even on Windows PCs. Here's something of a backwater you possibly won't know about. Space aliens invisibly attacking your phone. (And its happening right now).
You have likely read about the increase in solar storms in the past year with the sun potentially sending particles whizzing towards earth and crashing our power grids and computers. The media loves a good doomsday story. Well that's actually happening to us all the time albeit on a smaller scale. We (and our phones) are being zapped by radiation several times a minute. (Cosmic rays, not always originating from our own Sun — some from distant suns and ancient supernovas even). Powerful alien invaders that can zip through feet of concrete, smash into your phone and cause it to display gibberish.
After zipping through space for hours or millennia, when a ray hits the tiny integrated circuit in your phone it dumps all of its energy into the phone in an instant. (If you have ever seen the rats-nest plots from the Cern Large Hadron Collider search for the Higgs Boson, your phone gets irradiated with a very similar particle burst every time it gets hit - if you only had the detectors to see it that is). (A detector that you can make a variant of at home btw — perhaps I will write about that someday).
I don't need to tell you that almost everything has smart electronics of some kind contained in it. Well, smart electronics just hates those rats-nest particle tracks. Today in real terms digital machines are extensions of our minds and bodies. Because they are everywhere and according to futurist authors like Ray Kurzweil will soon be truly part of all that we are, then it is important for us to know how and why they (and therefore ultimately we) can suddenly and unexpectedly go pear-shape.
"The best laid schemes of mice and men..."
Chances are you know very well that a digital system is something to do with zeros and ones and bits and bytes. These live in integrated circuits — ics. Well, if that alien energy pulse arrives at the wrong place in the integrated circuit, then it can turn a one into a zero, or vice versa. This is known as bit-flipping — sometimes bit-dropping. Consider for a moment that if you bit-flip a 1 to a 0 at just the right place in a stored memory, then you can turn "yes" into a "no" or ten bucks into ten thousand bucks. (Also a noise-introduction trick that hackers can use to trash your files.)
Throwing hot dogs into the mouth of the Holland tunnel
Not that common of course. The right (or wrong) place is not likely to get hit very often. The radiation is so very tiny and atoms being mostly empty space that collisions don't happen that often — imagine throwing hot dogs into the mouth of the Holland tunnel. When a collision does happen, picture those videos of a cruise missile flying into the window of a building. Depending on the room that gets hit and the exact nature of the radiation, subsequently bad things can happen. Something that is more likely to happen on a long haul plane incidentally — less air above you to stop the radiation before your phone does, so the hit rate goes up. Integrated circuits made in Denver are 2 x as likely to have a cosmic ray problem as ics at sea-level. On Mars there is very little atmosphere so these unwanted alien collisions happen all the time. This is why the computers on the recent Mars mission took so very long to boot-up. The lander's memory has to check itself constantly plus the craft deliberately does not have much in the first place. It would take some long fingers for NASA to remove and replace the battery on Mars.
It came from outer space
You may even have seen cool designations like space-hardened or rad-hardened in scientific articles. IC manufacturers make special (and super expensive) versions of the microprocessors that you know and love specially designed to limit the impact of radiation hits. Failure to use these hardened integrated ics correctly was allegedly why the Russian Phobos-Grunt space probe failed to go into orbit correctly in 2011 and crashed into the Pacific— live cargo and all.
The Apollo astronauts complained that they could not sleep for all the bright-blue flashes they kept seeing while travelling to and from the Moon — even when their eyes were closed. Theory goes that was this same radiation. Tiny energy bombs exploding in the astronauts eyes and visual cortexes and possibly causing a secondary phenomena called Cherenkov radiation in the body fluids. (That's the scary blue glow that nuclear reactor water emits in the Bond movies).
I once read (but am not able to accurately reference here tonight) that the firemen who gave their lives to seal the 1980's Chernobyl reactor meltdown saw the surrounding air thick with flashes looking just like fireflies throughout that first night. Likely a similar radiation effect, but happening on such a huge scale that the radiation actually ionized the local air and engender a discharge. (Something which is incidentally similar to how some cold-weather exterior neon signage works. We excite the gasses till they glow using a high voltage radio frequency source. Gases seen to glow in the colors described in Chernobyl were probably Nitrogen and Oxygen. Know a gas by the color of the light it can either produce or block). The Chernobyl heroes did report smelling strong ozone smell in the lethal areas as they rushed to seal the broken reactor vessel. Same thing you would expect to smell with a discharge sign made for Nitrogen gas in my experience (That seaside smell — or a post thunderstorm meadow). Oh, and lighting equipment like that can knock out your cell phone too — but that's a story for another day.
As you probably learnt at High School, there are several flavors of radiation. Some flavors can jump tall buildings at a single bound, and others are readily stopped by a thin sheet of metal foil. Matter of fact, the black hat cowboy of all the radiation sources - Plutonium which although it persists in the environment for hundreds of generations if you detonate it over some unlucky nation, you can actually stop it irradiating you directly with a piece of toilet paper.
Some other flavors of radiation have rather more oomph to them. They can punch through cell phone housings, aircraft fuselages, reinforced concrete and even the random wanderings and collisions of a journey through space that began back when dinosaurs walked the earth. Some even go straight through the earth and out the other side — Neutrinos. A particle that is so hard to stop we find it hard to even prove they are there at all. You could wait a million years for a Neutrino to crash your phone and never see one do it. ... Bigger tunnel, smaller hot dog. Neutrons occur far more often. They can also come from below your feet (the reason why the Earth did not lose all its heat into space a long time ago - radiation), in your drinking water, your glassware and your Ikea Granite kitchen counters. No news there though so don't panic. Your body is designed to deal with it all, plus now you know that wearing an Aluminum foil helmet full time will not stop much of it at all.
Long time coming
It's a fun thought, that next time your phone or dishwasher screws up for no reason, maybe the culprit as not only an alien, but just maybe that little guy travelled a distance equal to almost the age of the universe just to get to you and your phone and then fulfill its destiny in a flash of energetic particles.
Even more fun is to be had in considering the fact that these space invaders don't just mess with integrated circuits. They can also mess with our own digital building blocks — our DNA . (Related note, I read very recently that someone had successfully encoded the first simple microcontroller onto DNA strands) DNA is naturally unstable, so when it copies itself small errors creep in. That's just the way it is. And that's just the way we slowly changed from wee timorous hamster-like beasties during the Jurassic into the cell-phone wielding monsters we are today. Literally errors, and lots of them. (Thanks Mr. Darwin.)
Opposable thumbs are good
DNA tends to break when radiation bumps into it. (Can be more of a sad-face screen event than a glitch). So, neatly closing that thought-loop here it turns out that we are just as vulnerable as our phones. In fact probably more so in the long-term. However, it is true to say that without those random changes combined with environmental pressure we would not be the Homo-Sapiens that we are today. The same star that launched the space invader that locked up your phone today maybe launched the one that gave you the opposable thumbs that you hold it with.
Most digital problems you see day to day are mainly sloppy programming its true. Creating software is really, really, really difficult. Time is money. The same financial pressures that apply to your leisure plans versus the mortgage this weekend apply to the guy that writes the software in your phone. "More for less please". A manager somewhere is pushing the author of the software in your phone to get the job done, constantly. Corners get cut and you end up with a Windows Vista instead of a Windows XP.
Testing software correctly is harder than writing it. When your phone stops working unexpectedly, you are probably the first person to ever have had exactly those programs and web sites open at the same time, at that time of day and to enter exactly that phone number... ever. Pesky digital errors like memory leaks can creep up and steal your work away. Memory leaks, perhaps better thought of as digital road traffic accidents from the Tron movie world. Say for instance you close a browser window to make a phone call, but the phone accidentally leaves some of that web page data in exactly the same memory parking space that the phone screen is about to use (plus you only have so much remember). The end result is that the phone locks-up. In Tron terms, to correct this collision the offending piece of memory is subsequently derezed and the phone does a tiny reset and backup to prevent the damage spreading. Most often today's operating systems glue things back together again after a very short time — a few milliseconds. Back in 1995 the entire computer used to get re-booted.
Back(wards) to the future
Annoyingly, although my computer experience has consistently improved since 1995, I actually find that my voice cell phone experience is very slowly getting worse.
As digital memory capacity necessarily gets larger to hold all that camera work you do these days, the tiny circuits in the ics become ever smaller and as a result the mouth of that Holland tunnel in my analogue gets smaller relative to the impacting killer-hotdog from space. The effect of the hit is therefore potentially greater as we move into newer, smaller and faster technology. Things will only get worse with time. Digital memories today have to constantly check and recheck themselves over and over again as they run your programs just to be sure that they catch all the errors and replace any bad data with a copy of good data before the digital damage spreads. (A process called error-checking). An unwanted side effect of this constant checking is that it causes heat incidentally — and it also drains your battery more rapidly.
Landing the plane
Layer all that onto that random invasion from space and you get a picture of why whacky things happen once in a while to your phone, your coffee maker and the on-hold line for your credit-card provider.
Annoying when they happen to your phone, but what if a major event happened in your car, or your airplane, or on a cruise missile, or worst of all on a nuclear warhead? This is one reason why your iPhone costs maybe $700 (and incidentally has about the same computing power as a Cray 2 supercomputer did in 1992) but, the trigger system on a nuclear warhead costs $700,000 and has less processing power than your Space Invader console did in 1985.
Incidentally, Iconic Cray 2 supercomputers were originally used to digitally model thermonuclear initiation bombs after the SALT treaty prevented the Army scientists making them go bang for real.
iPhones are used today to read blogs containing random references to Cray 2's and all of the systems mentioned above constantly get whacked by unwanted space invaders. Fingers crossed that the engineers continue to get it right and keep us all safe.
To close, I am pasting an image of the patent for a Thermonuclear Bomb. The Hydrogen Bomb, the bomb that ushered in microscopic swimwear for women with a little assistance from Miss Brigitte Bardot . Yes, amazingly it really was patented — another ripping yarn for another day perhaps. Patent search the authors...
Have a fine weekend.
Jon Connell, Futurist, polymath and inventor
(Anyone objecting to my Darwinian statement on religious grounds, I respect your opinion and don't care to debate it with you please. A no win situation for everyone. I previously covered the issue fully in my blog from the Council of Nicaea back in AD 325 and don't want to re-hash old material — my then well ahead of its time "Angels dancing on pin heads — the Western Roman Empire is looking kinda shaky these days" blog).
by Jon Connell
@Skeptoid Media, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit