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update: reopened (thanks!), hit #1 in "highest voted" and "most viewed", and closed again (oddly, as "not a real question")... now needing two more votes to reopen.

I'm trying to verify this claim by one of our developers:

"Since 1/2^128 is 1 out of 340282366920938463463374607431768211456, I think we're justified in taking our chances here, even if these computations are off by a factor of a few billion... We're way more at risk for cosmic rays to screw us up, I believe."

So I asked this question:


On moderator tools, this question show up in three categories: highest voted (16 45), most commented (15 19), highest voted answer (16), and most viewed (264 668). But it was closed!

I think it's a legitimate question, since it's a commonly used observation that some software event is statistically less likely than being affected by cosmic rays.

Am I mistaken? What do you think?

share|improve this question
Voted to reopen, although I think someone will probably now argue that the question belongs on SuperUser. –  Robert Harvey Apr 6 '10 at 2:46
I would have thought it would be a better question for ServerFault, given that it's the sort of thing that's generally fixed by ECC RAM –  Mark Henderson Apr 6 '10 at 2:53
I'm wondering why you need it reopened, considering you've accepted an answer already. –  gnostradamus Apr 6 '10 at 2:54
@gnovices: Closed questions are candidates for deletion. –  Robert Harvey Apr 6 '10 at 3:00
Cosmic rays? Isn't that one of the classic BofH calendar excuses? (billionquotes.com/index.php/Bastard_Operator_From_Hell) –  John Rudy Apr 6 '10 at 3:28
How do you know it was closed by five real users? Maybe they were four intentional votes, plus one bogus vote induced by cosmic rays on the SO server. –  Daniel Daranas Apr 6 '10 at 7:32
[Closed as off-topic] on Super User in advance –  Ivo Flipse Apr 6 '10 at 11:28
Questions like this, which are on the verge of being closed (again) with four votes, make me wish it was possible to pre-emptively cast a vote for keeping it open. –  matt b Apr 6 '10 at 11:54
I think you meant the question as a joke (and as such should be probably closed), but it turns out that incredibly cosmic rays do play an important effect on software development and therefore it became a real, valid question. Voted to re-open. –  Andreas Bonini Apr 6 '10 at 17:21
@Kop: What makes you think it was a joke? It seems completely legitimate to me. –  mmyers Apr 6 '10 at 17:43
@Kop: not a joke! I've heard this for years, and this time I would like to verify that when the programmer says "less likely than X" he has some idea of what X might be. –  Mark Harrison Apr 6 '10 at 18:33

2 Answers 2

up vote 12 down vote accepted

This is definitely a valid question.

There are issues with this type of thing when it comes to long-running very accurate scientific calculations. The longer it takes to come up with a result, the higher the chance of having a cosmic ray zap one of the bits of memory and either (a) blow up the computation completely, or, far more dangerously, (b) skew the result by a small but significant amount.

While the question is borderline as a "programming question," I would certainly say it's an issue that's "programming-related."

share|improve this answer
The problem was that the OP presented the "cosmic rays" thing as part of an off-the-cuff "we don't need to worry about that error" statement. As such, the actual probability is besides the point, so long as it's small. If the OP had instead said he is designing a long-running very accurate scientific calculation and wanted to know about the probability of cosmic rays, the question would have been more clearly valid. All the hand-wavery about how popular a question it is only conflates the issue: popularity and validity are distinct and separate. –  ベレアー アダム Apr 6 '10 at 18:51
@(How the heck am I supposed to reference your name? lol): I agree that popularity and validity are two separate things. What I'm not sure about is that the question was stated poorly. I understood what it was asking just fine. Maybe it's simply a matter of misunderstanding the subject of the question? –  Jon Seigel Apr 6 '10 at 19:01

Personally, I think the whole problem here is the term "cosmic rays". It sounds like science fiction or junk science at best. Now I realize that this is a real term, but I think most people see the question and immediately think it's a joke, or that the OP is a tinfoil hat type.

share|improve this answer
or both!!!!!!!! –  Steven A. Lowe Apr 6 '10 at 17:57
definitely both! –  Mark Harrison Feb 20 '13 at 23:16

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