When your computer or other electronic devices such as you smartphone crashes or gets frozen, don't go blaming the manufacturer. I could just be cosmic rays or the electrically charged particles from the rays that could be upsetting the working of the device. While being harmless for living beings, these particles could just be messing with the circuitry of the electronic device, and this messing up is called a single-event upset or SEU.
An SEU can cause a single bit of data to flip within the chip's memory. This flip can cause something as trivial as a change of a pixel in a photo or something as big as bringing a passenger jet down! Not unsurprisingly, an SEU was blamed for the voting error in that occurred in Schaerbeek, Belgium in 2003. The voting machine awarded 4,096 extra votes to one candidate, with the cause being an SEU flipping just one bit. This issue came to light, only because the machine awarded more votes than what was possible.
Bharat Bhuva who is a professor at the Vanderbilt University and a part of its Radiation Effects Research Group gave a presentation on SEUs at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science held in Boston on Friday. He reckons that these single-event upsets do pose a major problem but still are mostly invisible to the common man and that despite these SEUs causing huge problems, they are still a rare event. One other aspect to be noted is that, as the number of transistors increases so does the threat of an SEU occurrence.
Prof. Bhuva's research group was established back in 1987 and had mainly focussed on military and space application. After 2001 they expanded their focus on consumer electronics and how they were affected by these electrically charged particles.
Apart from researchers the semiconductor manufacturers too have upped their game and have been constantly working on reducing the effect of interference from cosmic rays. Fujitsu, a Japanese personal computer manufacturing company in 2008, went up a Hawaiian volcano to determine the effect of cosmic rays on electronic devices.