What Happens When You Stick Your Head Into a Particle Accelerator
Today I found out what happens when you stick your head into a particle accelerator.
Exhibit A: Anatoli Petrovich Bugorski, a Russian scientist who has the distinction of being the only person to ever stick his head in a running particle accelerator. Shockingly, he also managed to survive the ordeal and, all things considered, came out without too much damage.
Bugorski was a researcher at the Institute for High Energy Physics in Protvino, working with the Soviet particle accelerator- The Synchrotron U-70, one time world record holder for highest energy accelerator.
On the momentous day of July 13, 1978, the then 36 year old Bugorski was checking a malfunctioning piece of equipment. As he was leaning over to take a gander, he accidentally stuck his head through the part of the accelerator that the proton beam was running through.
The result? Sadly, no superpowers, with one caveat we’ll get to in a bit. Instead, he reported seeing a flash that was, to quote him, “brighter than a thousand suns”, but did not feel any pain when this happened.
One can only assume from this the bright flash was caused via the photoreceptors in his retinas being abnormally stimulated. This is akin to what’s happening when you see a bright flash if someone punches you in the head or the like, with the sudden jarring causing pressure on the retina, which in turn creates an electrical impulse to the brain which the brain interprets as a flash. Those who suffer from migraine headaches often see similar flashes leading up to or during their migraine, sometimes caused by spasming of certain blood vessels in the head.
Whatever was happening in Bugorski’s head as a result of the beam to cause the flash, as for the beam itself, it measured 2000 gray as it entered Bugorski’s skull at the rear of his head and exiting around the front corner of his nose. For those unfamiliar, a “gray” is a unit of energy absorbed from ionizing radiation. One gray is equal to the absorption of one joule of radiation energy by one kilogram of matter. For reference, absorption of over 5 grays at any time usually leads to death within a couple weeks. However, no one before had ever experienced radiation in the form of a proton beam moving at close to the speed of light so, naturally, Bugorski was studied closely, with the physicians involved sure their lab rat wouldn’t last long.
As for the immediate aftermath, Bugorski’s left half of his face swelled up beyond recognition. In the days following, the skin on the part of his face and back of his head where the beam hit peeled off and it was observed via extensive examination that the beam had burned through his skull and brain tissue.
As for his intellectual capacity, this remained seemingly the same as before as far as all tests done on him could tell. The few negative health drawbacks he did experience were not life threatening either. He lost the hearing in his left ear and experienced a constant unpleasant noise in that ear from then on. The left half of his face slowly became paralyzed over the course of the next two years. He also reported getting significantly more fatigued with mental work, though he did go on to get his PhD after this incident and continued his work as a scientist without apparent issue on the mental capacity front. The remaining side effects were occasional absence seizures and later tonic-clonic seizures, though these didn’t show up right away.
For those unfamiliar, absence seizures, also called petit mal seizures, are generally marked by the person more or less seeming to stare off into space for some period of time, usually a few seconds. Contrary to popular perception here, sometimes during these seizures, there is no abnormal muscle activity at all. In contrast, tonic-clonic seizures often involve extreme muscle rigidity and violent contractions- basically some version of what most people think of when discussing seizures.
In any event, the most bizarre side effect that occurred because of his little incident has to do with his face. While the right side of his face more or less aged as you’d expect, ultimately nice and wrinkled as the years drug on, the left half of his face revealed a slight super power- the ability to seem to not age, showing markedly less wrinkling, even for a time none at all even as the other side was nice and weathered. Essentially leaving him looking more like someone who tipped his plastic surgeon extremely well… Or maybe only paid for half an operation given only half of his face looked fabulous. Apparently Botox’s got nothing on a particle accelerator’s proton beam for reducing wrinkles. 😉 Though given the particle accelerator paralyzed the one side of his face, somewhat similar to Botox, apparently that’s the key. Except in this case, it was a nice permanent effect.
As for how long he lived after the accident, as you might have guessed given our mention of his elderly wrinkles, it turns out a long time. In fact, as far as we can find, the 77 year old Bugorski is still alive today, though we weren’t able to find any interviews or the like with him in the last decade.
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- During absence seizures, the person will often appear to be just staring off into space. There is no typical jerking or twitching as is associated with many other types of seizures. Absence seizure victims will often move from one location to another without purpose or thought behind it. What is happening here is, under normal circumstances, thalamacortical oscillations maintain normal consciousness of an individual; during absence seizures these are disrupted.
- A synchrotron is a cyclic particle accelerator where a magnetic field and an electric field are carefully synchronized with a traveling particle beam. The magnetic field turns the particles so they circulate; the electric field accelerates the particles.
- Tonic-Clonic seizures are more typically what most people think of when we think of seizures. During the “tonic” phase the person will lose consciousness and their muscles will suddenly tense. This typically only lasts a few seconds. During the “clonic” phase the muscles will start to contract and relax rapidly, causing the person to convulse sometimes severely.
- Bugorski went on to get his PhD after this incident and worked as a scientist for many years. In 1996, he applied for disabled status to receive his epilepsy medication free, but was turned down. He also tried to make himself available to Western researchers but was unable to afford to leave Protvino.
- Bugorski is married to Vera Nikolaevna and they together have one son named Peter.
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