Wondering why your iPhone keeps freezing up? It might not be the fact you’ve dropped it 20 times – or that you haven’t updated the software in 10 months.
Actually, it could be alien particles raining down from space, which are wreaking ‘low-grade havoc’ on Earthly computers, one scientist has claimed.
Perhaps more worryingly, they’re also messing with aeroplane computers – and tech companies are worried.
Professor Bharat Bhuva, of Vanderbilt University in the United States, said: This is a really big problem, but it is mostly invisible to the public.’
When cosmic rays traveling at fractions of the speed of light strike the Earth’s atmosphere they create cascades of secondary particles including energetic neutrons, muons, pions and alpha particles.
Prof Bhuva said that millions of the particles strike your body each second.
Despite their numbers, this subatomic torrent is imperceptible and has no known harmful effects on living organisms..
But a fraction of these particles carry enough energy to interfere with the operation of microelectronic circuitry.
When they interact with integrated circuits, they may alter individual bits of data stored in memory.
This is called a single-event upset or SEU – known as a ‘bit flip’.
Prof Bhuva said: there have been a number of incidents that illustrate how serious the problem can be. For example, in 2003 in the Belgian town of Schaerbeek a bit flip in an electronic voting machine added 4,096 extra votes to one candidate.
Prof Bhuva said the error was only detected because it gave the candidate more votes than were possible and it was traced to a single bit flip in the machine’s register.
In 2008, the avionics system of a Qantas passenger jet flying from Singapore to Perth appeared to suffer from a single-event upset that caused the autopilot to disengage.
As a result, the aircraft dived 690 feet in only 23 seconds, injuring about a third of the passengers seriously enough to cause the aircraft to divert to the nearest airstrip.
Prof Bhuva said: ‘The semiconductor manufacturers are very concerned about this problem because it is getting more serious as the size of the transistors in computer chips shrink and the power and capacity of our digital systems increase.
‘In addition, microelectronic circuits are everywhere and our society is becoming increasingly dependent on them.’
Prof Bhuva said: ‘Our study confirms that this is a serious and growing problem.