The Carrington Event

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In the wee hours of Thursday morning, I woke up – – out of anxiety, I suppose – – and reached over to grab my iPad. The first thing I saw was a bevy of messages in Telegram, which is never a good sign.

To my alarm, the messages had to do with the site being down. There were two bits of good news. First of all, this was happening at 3 in the morning, and traffic is, shall we say, rather light at that time of day. Second, God bless him, my network engineer was already on the case and had the site back in working order. Sort of. But we’ll get back to that story in a bit.

In September of the year 1859, a gargantuan solar flare occurred, and once it reached earth, the geomagnetic effect was absolutely spectacular. In those days, of course, there were no light bulbs, no telephones, no………anything. The most high-tech piece of equipment was the telegraph. Even so, the effect on humanity was virtually worldwide. The Aurora – – which is typically confined to the very top and bottom of the Earth, visible only to a few – – was now seen in places like Cuba and Mexico. People in New England could read books in the middle of the night, the sky was so bright. As a miner in Australia related:

Myself and two mates looking out of the tent saw a great reflection in the southern heavens at about 7 o’clock p.m., and in about half an hour, a scene of almost unspeakable beauty presented itself, lights of every imaginable color were issuing from the southern heavens, one color fading away only to give place to another if possible more beautiful than the last, the streams mounting to the zenith, but always becoming a rich purple when reaching there, and always curling round, leaving a clear strip of sky, which may be described as four fingers held at arm’s length. The northern side from the zenith was also illuminated with beautiful colors, always curling round at the zenith, but were considered to be merely a reproduction of the southern display, as all colors south and north always corresponded. It was a sight never to be forgotten, and was considered at the time to be the greatest aurora recorded… The rationalist and pantheist saw nature in her most exquisite robes, recognizing, the divine immanence, immutable law, cause, and effect. The superstitious and the fanatical had dire forebodings, and thought it a foreshadowing of Armageddon and final dissolution

As magnificent as that sounds – – and I’m sure it was awe-inspiring to countless millions – – such an event like this today would be potentially devastating beyond imagination. Let me step aside and let Slope’s patron saint suggest the consequences:

The point is that we are, oh, about five billion times more dependent on technology than the good people of 1859, and the prospect of the sun belching out a big ol’ flare that happens to hit us isn’t exactly out of the realm of possibility. You may recall in March 1989, the entire city of Quebec lost power for nine hours due to a vastly smaller geomagnetic event.

I thought about all of this since Slope, which has become pretty vast over the years, is incredibly complex and intricate, and it represents a microcosm of any technologically complex entity. See, I’ve got some really smart guys who work with me, and it took all our collective brainpower, as well as a huge stroke of luck, to get things back to exactly where we wanted them to be. Not only that, but it took the entire day. Not fun.

It turns out the problem was that a couple of years ago, one of the few serious hiring mistakes I’ve made in my life (I got rid of the guy) did a bit of slipshod code which used the exact same class name as another part of the codebase. This was the equivalent of finding out that the reason your car doesn’t run was that the font they used for the car model’s name on your trunk was Comic Sans instead of Arial Bold. Really, really, obscure, and I am so grateful that the guys I have working with me now are so good that they were actually able to smoke out something so deep and obscure.

A tiny, careless tidbit of code from years ago brought a site to its knees. I shudder to think of what would happen to society at large if, boop!, cell towers got fried, the power grid went out, and jets in the sky suddenly found themselves without working electronics. We live in a simultaneously marvelous and terrifying age.