|cosmic ray |
A ray of radiation of extraterrestrial origin, consisting of one or more charged particles such as protons, alpha particles, and larger atomic nuclei. Cosmic rays entering the atmosphere collide with atoms, producing secondary radiation, such as pions, muons, electrons, and gamma rays. Cosmic rays (and secondary radiation) can be easily seen in a cloud chamber.
Elementary particles, mainly protons, that are produced by the sun and other stars and then strike the upper atmosphere of the Earth. Some of these particles are absorbed, some help form the Van Allen belt, and some reach the Earth's surface, where they form a part of the background radiation that constantly surrounds us.
Notionally, the cause of bit rot. However, this is a semi-independent usage that may be invoked as a humorous way to handwave away any minor randomness that doesn't seem worth the bother of investigating. "Hey, Eric - I just got a burst of garbage on my tube, where did that come from?" "Cosmic rays, I guess." Compare sunspots, phase of the moon. The British seem to prefer the usage "cosmic showers"; "alpha particles" is also heard, because stray alpha particles passing through a memory chip can cause single bit errors (this becomes increasingly more likely as memory sizes and densities increase).
Factual note: Alpha particles cause bit rot, cosmic rays do not (except occasionally in spaceborne computers). Intel could not explain random bit drops in their early chips, and one hypothesis was cosmic rays. So they created the World's Largest Lead Safe, using 25 tons of the stuff, and used two identical boards for testing. One was placed in the safe, one outside. The hypothesis was that if cosmic rays were causing the bit drops, they should see a statistically significant difference between the error rates on the two boards. They did not observe such a difference. Further investigation demonstrated conclusively that the bit drops were due to alpha particle emissions from thorium (and to a much lesser degree uranium) in the encapsulation material. Since it is impossible to eliminate these radioactives (they are uniformly distributed through the earth's crust, with the statistically insignificant exception of uranium lodes) it became obvious that one has to design memories to withstand these hits.