Well-Known Computer Glitch May Have Been Caused By A Single Ionizing Particle From Space

A computer glitch. Image credit: The7Dew/Shutterstock.com

In 2016, a speedrunner attempting to beat Super Mario 64 as fast as possible hit upon a glitch that helped speed things up a bit.

Twitch user DOTA_TeaBag was jumping up some platforms when he was suddenly warped a few platforms higher. You can see the glitch for yourself below.

As you can see, the glitch was nothing that exciting. Glitches happen all the time. However, the glitch caught the attention of a big name in Mario speedruns (a sentence which makes me feel incredibly old), user pannenkoek2012, who offered a $1,000 bounty for anybody who could recreate the glitch, in order to improve his own times. 

Nobody has been able to replicate the glitch, despite going as far as to replicate the exact inputs – frame by frame – in an emulator, The Gamer reports. The fact that the glitch wasn't replicable led people to propose some wild theories, including that it was what's known as a single-event upset, caused by a cosmic particle colliding with particles in our atmosphere.

The theory – popular among gamers – is that the cartridge was hit by a single ionizing particle, flipping a bit from a 0 to a 1, or a 1 to a 0.

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According to The Gamer, it flipped a byte responsible for Mario's height from 11000101 to 11000100, which was the height needed for Mario to latch onto the higher platform. By flipping this bit, another gamer was able to (almost) replicate the warp.

So, as wild as this sounds, is it possible? Well, if we're talking what's possible, then the answer is yes.

NASA and other space agencies have to take this into account when testing sensitive electronic equipment. Without protection from the atmosphere, equipment is more likely to be hit by energetic particles. Astronauts even see light flashes due to energetic cosmic rays going through their eyeballs.

"Single Event Upsets have been observed on almost every low-earth orbit satellite system, even as far back as Explorer 1 in 1958, which discovered the presence of the Van Allen belts," the United States Geological Survey (USGS) write on their website, adding an example of such an event taken from the satellite Landsat 7, below.

Can you see the pixel? Dramatic isn't it. Image credit: USGS

On Earth, it's rarer – and even rarer that it should be spotted – but it can happen. On October 7, 2008, an Airbus A330-303 operated by Qantas Airways was en route to Singapore when there was an error in the system that caused the aircraft to dramatically pitch downwards, causing over 100 injuries on board. All causes of the error were found to be unlikely or very unlikely, except for a single event error, though there wasn't enough evidence to blame it on this specifically.

In 2003 in Belgium, a single event error may have caused a voting machine to cast an additional 4,000 votes in favor of the winning candidate, which was only spotted because it meant that in the local area the candidate had more votes than was possible, given the population.

So in short, it is possible that this happened during the Mario speedrun, but it's still extremely (astronomically, in fact) unlikely. The bit was likely flipped, as the demonstration above showed, but this could be caused by anything from a warm console (some speedrunners deliberately put their consoles on hotplates to trigger glitches) or to do with how the cartridge is angled in the console.

"Frankly, a gamma ray happening to flip a particular bit seems a bit far-fetched to me," UncommentatedPannen, who reproduced the glitch wrote on their video. "It's completely possible that some in-game mechanic treats the height float like an integer and decrements it, thus decreasing that bit from a 1 to a 0."

"Without any sort of [exact] replication of the original glitch, we can't know anything for sure."

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