When the Stars Threw Down their Spears

June 15, 2010

We should all recognize this line from Blake’s poem “The Tyger” written just before 1800’s when England’s influence was beginning to dominate and control India and the mysterious Indian tiger evoked images of  fear and fascination.

The simplicity of the verse in the poem could allegorically describe a great discovery in the field of physics called cosmic rays. (but I seriously doubt Blake knew about cosmic rays 🙂 )

Why are they important?  Because in the field of Astrophysics they become the exception to theoretical rules.  Or they down right smash them!

First; what are cosmic rays?

They are atomic nuclei (mostly hydrogen or helium elements ) stripped of their electron shells, shooting through space at extreme  high velocity.

Are you getting the right image of what i am saying?
All right then let me put it another way.
If the nuclei of a hydrogen atom were the size of a basketball, the outer electron shell would be 8,000 miles away!  That’s the approximate distance from San Diego, California to Bangkok, Thailand.  Does that help?

This is why cosmic rays (particles ,”ray” being a misnomer at the time of discovery) mostly pass right  through us and additionally right through the earth!  The chances of hitting another nuclei are very slim but when they do WHOA !

Now for the “extreme high velocity” mental illumination.

These ultimately smallest of particles are clocked at speeds 248.5 miles (400km) a second and greater but the most shocking to all scientists was the OH MY GOD PARTICLE  discovered on the night of October 15, 1991 by the University of Utah’s cosmic ray detector.

Remember what you were taught in school; that nothing can travel at the speed of light or even approach that speed?  Why?  Because the closer matter approaches light speed the greater it’s mass increases thus slowing it down. The problem is this particle didn’t go to the same school we did nor did the source that sent it!

How fast was this infinitesimal proton going? 2.9999999999999999999999853×108 metres per second !  You are probably wondering why the speed is just not given as 3×108 BECAUSE 3×108 metres per second IS THE SPEED OF LIGHT !  This little mighty mouse after traveling across space for one year would be only 45 nano meters behind the photon (light particle) that left with him.
Remember a nanometer is only three to five atoms wide, while a human hair is about 60000 nanometers in diameter.
Was it’s mass increased?  Oh Yeah!
When this infinitesimal sub atomic particle was detected the instruments indicated a mass and force of a baseball moving at 60 miles an hour!

Let’s take a nuclei of an atom of an element in one molecule of water, within one of our cells, and shoot it through with one of these cosmic bullets.  What would happen?  Not only would that element change but also the molecule and that molecule would be removed from the body.
But whoa that is a different thing when your computer processor gets hit!

The processors are becoming more like molecules than pieces of equipment. Every two years they shrink the components of the processor chip to where they are nanometers apart; just like in a complex molecule. What happens when a nucleus of one of the atoms of the processors’ transistors gate gets nailed by a OH MY GOD PARTICLE  what then? Imagine  seeing a rising mushroom cloud coming out of your computer and the temperature rising to a 1000 degrees… just kidding 🙂

It wouldn’t be any different from what a power spike or static discharge would do.

Would it still work?  Possibly, but not very well depending on where the hole is.  It’s hard to believe that a computer would not function with holes blown through it’s processor but trust me on this 🙂

Has there ever been any computer damage attributed to cosmic rays?  Yes.  Especially at high altitudes above the protection of the atmosphere and the denser part of the earth’s magnetic field. For the IBM research on cosmic ray damage to computers and memory click HERE

Is there anything we can do to stop cosmic rays from destroying our computers?  Don’t use your computer while in orbit around the earth or outside the protection of the atmosphere 🙂  Seriously, the odds are you will more likely destroy your computer by voltage spikes and transient voltages, rather than by cosmic rays.  Unless you’re an astronaut!

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb, make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

If you have questions about using a UPS to protect your computer give us a call at IBEX or place a comment on this article.

by  R. Frank Tulak

Further reading:

The Domino Effect

Most Lethal #6