The series of events we’re about to recount for you that happened recently at a Chicago-area hospital might sound like a gas, but they most definitely weren’t for the iPhone and Apple Watch owners whose devices suddenly — and seemingly inexplicably — freaked out and died. We’ve since come to find out that helium is the equivalent of kryptonite for iPhones, which can become temporarily bricked in its presence. Who knew? Allow us to explain.
It all started when a technician was installing a new MRI machine at a hospital just outside Chicago. Systems specialist Erik Woolridge started hearing reports that iPhones (not Androids) were suddenly not working anymore inside the building. His first thought: Did the MRI send out some sort of EMP?
That was quickly ruled out, as the rest of the hospital’s equipment was fine. So were Android phones inside the building. But a tally quickly revealed 40 different Apple devices showing glitches.
An iFixit report has more details: “That’s when [Erik] posted the issue to Reddit, where other sysadmins speculated that it might be caused by the liquid helium used to cool the MRI machine. So he investigated, and found there was a helium leak at the same time that vented into the building.”
The iFixit report zeroes in on the quartz oscillator at the heart of the iPhone’s clock as the problem. The clock, of course, is critical to the device. The CPU doesn’t work without it. Erik later performed an experiment that included sealing an iPhone 8 Plus inside a bag and filling it with helium to confirm that leak was the source of the problem. From iFixit’s report: “I leave the display on and run a stopwatch for the duration of the test. Around 8 minutes and 20 seconds in the phone locks up. Nothing crazy really happens. The clock just stops, and nothing else. The display did stay on though.”
Of course, it should go without saying this situation is not at all a common one. Just be aware, the iFixit piece concludes, that if your iPhone gets near helium, the chemical element’s molecules can stop your iPhone’s clock, which subsequently turns it into a temporarily useless (but certainly sleek-looking) paperweight.