The Cosmos’ Attack on Computers

In 1984, IBM encountered a mystery: computers in Denver were making ten times more unexplained mistakes than the national average. The operators of the computers kept reporting memory errors, but whenever they sent a memory unit back to IBM, the company could find nothing physically wrong. Why wouldn’t computers work properly in Denver?

For several years, the operators had to work around the fact that their computers would occasionally just forget things. It was almost like the computers were high – which, it turned out, was precisely the problem. At 5,280 feet, computers in Denver are much more susceptible to an unlikely culprit: cosmic rays. Continue reading

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Science

Or Why Effective Theories are so … Effective

Solids, liquids, gases.  What do these words really mean?  How about cell, organ, or human?  At a fundamental level, these things are complex assemblages of interacting subatomic particles.  But you probably have an easy time recognizing a human without knowing about their electron configurations; you might instead identify key characteristics like physical appearance or behavior.  These various abstractions help us understand the macro-world, but a seemingly naive philosophical question is “why can we do that?Continue reading