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Cosmic Rays: Unseen Phenomena Shaping Our World

Cosmic Rays and Bit Flips

By Akanni Adedamola Published 12 months ago 3 min read

Cosmic Rays: Unseen Phenomena Shaping Our World

In the vast expanse of the universe, an invisible phenomenon known as cosmic rays plays a surprising role in shaping our world. From affecting election results to flipping bits in computers, these high-energy particles from outer space interact with our planet in fascinating ways. This article delves into the intriguing world of cosmic rays, exploring their impact on elections, computer systems, and even space exploration. Through historical events and scientific discoveries, we unravel the mysterious nature of cosmic rays and their far-reaching consequences.

The Belgian Election Recount

On May 18th, 2003, a seemingly ordinary election in Belgium turned into a peculiar mystery. Maria Vindevogel, a little-known candidate, received more votes than mathematically possible due to a bizarre glitch in the voting system. Computer experts investigated the issue, but no software bugs were found, and the hardware appeared to be in perfect condition. The clue to solving the puzzle lay in the number of excess votes Vindevogel received: exactly 4,096, a power of two. Computers work using binary code, where bits represent zeros and ones, each corresponding to a power of two. Upon closer inspection, they discovered that a cosmic ray likely struck a transistor, causing a bit to flip from zero to one, resulting in the extra votes.

Cosmic Rays and Early Discoveries

The concept of cosmic rays dates back to the early 20th century when scientists sought ways to measure radioactivity in different materials. Pioneering experiments conducted at high altitudes revealed an increase in radiation, indicating the presence of cosmic rays. Austrian physicist Victor Hess's groundbreaking balloon flights in 1911 led to the discovery of these high-energy particles originating from outer space. Today, we understand that cosmic rays consist mainly of protons and helium nuclei, with some of the highest-energy particles believed to come from black holes.

Cosmic Rays and Modern Technology

As technology advanced, cosmic rays began to influence our electronic devices. In the 1970s, reports emerged from big computer companies, such as Intel, about strange errors in their microchips. The culprit was identified as single-event upsets caused by cosmic rays. Alpha particles emitted by radioactive materials present in the manufacturing process could flip bits in microchips, leading to soft errors. Chip manufacturers took heed and implemented measures to avoid radioactive materials during production.

Cosmic Rays and Video Games

Cosmic rays are not limited to affecting computers and elections; they have even found their way into the world of video games. In a rare incident during a Super Mario 64 speedrun, a player experienced an unexplainable up warp glitch, propelling the character to a higher platform. Investigating the event, researchers hypothesized that a cosmic ray may have caused a bit flip in the game's code, triggering the glitch. While this was a visible example, cosmic rays continually trigger bit flips in various electronic devices.

Implications for Space Exploration

Space agencies are aware of the impact cosmic rays can have on spacecraft and their electronic systems. Special measures, like radiation-hardened components, are employed to protect vital equipment during missions. For instance, the Mars Rover's computer, launched in 2001, is designed to withstand high radiation levels, ensuring its resilience during its interplanetary exploration.

Cosmic Rays and Genetic Variation

Throughout Earth's history, cosmic rays may have had an essential role in shaping life on our planet. These high-energy particles, passing through the atmosphere, interact with living organisms' genetic codes, potentially providing variation for natural selection to act upon. While this impact is not yet fully understood, cosmic rays could have played a significant role in the evolution of life on Earth.


Cosmic rays, once a mysterious and unknown phenomenon, are now recognized for their significant influence on various aspects of our world. From politics to technology and space exploration, these invisible particles leave a tangible mark on our lives. As we continue to explore the universe and delve into the mysteries of cosmic rays, their influence will undoubtedly continue to shape the course of human history. Understanding these unseen forces provides us with an appreciation of the interconnectedness between our planet and the cosmos.


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    AAWritten by Akanni Adedamola

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