What Happens When You Stick Your Head Into a Particle Accelerator

Daven Hiskey 53
anatoli bugorskiToday 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.

On July 13, 1978, Bugorski was checking a malfunctioning piece of equipment.  As he was leaning over the piece of equipment, he stuck his head through the part of the accelerator that the proton beam was running through.  He reported seeing a flash that was “brighter than a thousand suns”, but did not feel any pain when this happened.

The beam itself measured 2000 gray as it entered Bugorski’s skull and about 3000 gray when it exited on the other side.  A “gray” is an SI 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.  An example where this is commonly used is in X-rays.  For reference, absorption of over 5 grays at any time usually leads to death within 14 days.  However, no one before had ever experienced radiation in the form of a proton beam moving at about the speed of light.

As you can see from the picture, the beam entered the back of Bugorski’s head and came out around his nose.  Shortly after this happened, Bugorski’s left half of his face swelled up beyond recognition.  He was taken to the hospital and studied as this was something that had never been seen before and so they closely monitored him thereafter, fully expecting him to die within a few days at most.

Although the skin on the part of his face and back of his head where the beam hit peeled off over the next few days and the beam had burned through his skull and brain tissue, Bugorski did not die and actually came through it all surprisingly well.

Despite the beam going through his brain, his intellectual capacity remained the same as before.  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 gets significantly more fatigued with mental work, though he did go on to get his PhD after this incident.  The remaining side effects were occasional absence seizures and later tonic-clonic seizures, though these didn’t show up right away.

The most bizarre side effect that occurred because of this has to do with his face.  Looking at Bugorski now, you’d see the right half of his face looks like a normal wrinkled old man, but the left half of his face looks as if it was frozen in time 32 years ago.  Apparently Botox’s got nothing on a particle accelerator’s proton beam for stopping wrinkles. ;-)

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Bonus Facts:

  • 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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53 Comments »

  1. Jeebus March 4, 2010 at 8:19 am - Reply

    I’ve heard that having no emotion in your face actually results in less wrinkles. Maybe this explains why half of his face seems younger than the other. I’m assuming he couldn’t move that side of his face, of course.

  2. Rob Ingram March 8, 2010 at 3:00 pm - Reply

    Nice article, but it is wrong about Mr. Bugorski “being the only person to ever stick their head in a running particle accelerator.”

    I myself, have “stuck my head” in a proton beam created by a cyclotron. It’s not very uncommon these days as it is a very effective form of therapy for tumors. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proton_therapy

  3. Andrea January 16, 2011 at 3:26 pm - Reply

    “However, no one before has ever experienced radiation in the form of a proton beam moving at about the speed of sound.”

    If it was at the speed of sound it would have been a pretty lame accelerator. Maybe speed of light?

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven January 16, 2011 at 11:47 pm - Reply

      @Andrea: heh, good catch. It’s been a long time since I wrote this article, but I’m quite sure you’re right and that’s a typo. :-)

    • Syed Moin Doja November 2, 2013 at 11:22 am - Reply

      “lame acclerator” – haha, that had me really laughing :D Yeah i get amused easily…

  4. TheB-man February 22, 2011 at 7:20 pm - Reply

    I had something similar happen when I divided by zero in my head.

  5. Ronchris March 11, 2011 at 10:21 am - Reply

    Hi – your article says the beam strength was 2000 Gy entering and 3000 Gy exiting.

    I think you have those reversed, otherwise the guy’s head is a pretty powerful proton source. Maybe he’s Cyclops the X-man?

  6. Walter Sobchak March 11, 2011 at 10:22 am - Reply

    “the only person to ever stick their head in a running particle accelerator”

    Should be:

    the only person to ever stick his head in a running particle accelerator

    • Dion July 9, 2013 at 6:11 pm - Reply

      ‘their’ is used as a gender-neutral pronoun, which still fits.

  7. Ellen March 11, 2011 at 11:29 am - Reply

    Something similar happened to my PhD adviser, back in the 50s. A three-tank proton linac was being built, and everybody was tweaking parameters to make it run better. There was poor safety discipline, because my adviser was working on the beam output port while somebody at the other end was trying to get a beam.

    These are two things one should not do at the same time. The beam went right through his hand.

    He became my adviser maybe ten years after that, and I failed to notice any difference in his hands; so apparently this beam, too, caused relatively minor problems.

  8. radioactiveman March 11, 2011 at 1:58 pm - Reply

    5 Gy is not lethal in 14 days. It’s barely even an LD20. And you’d easily survive the heme syndrome and the GI syndrome with Neupogen and supportive care at that low a dose.

  9. John D March 11, 2011 at 9:51 pm - Reply

    Little known fact.

    He got his PHD and went on to design nuclear reactors. The one at Chernobyl was his crowing achievement.

  10. Rob D April 24, 2011 at 3:54 am - Reply

    Hey just to say that what you are describing in the absence seizure part is more like a complex partial seizure. An absence seizure tends to happen in children and as you stated in the first sentence looks outwardly like the person is daydreaming, they will stop mid sentance or task and stare blankly, these are seizures that affect the whole brain and typically do not last more than 10 seconds. However a seizure where someone loses consiousness and wanders off or engages in odd behaviours are usually complex partial seizures. These are seizures that only affect part of the brain and interfere with consiousness.

  11. huh? May 20, 2012 at 11:14 am - Reply

    what rob d describes as an absence seizure is better known in the scienfiic community as a brain fart

  12. vin August 22, 2013 at 4:29 pm - Reply

    Abysmal fail…….yet ANOTHER crappy example of getting free editing by commentors……You can always tell when an article is put together by cut’n’paste….”but the left half of his face looks as if it was frozen in time 19 years ago”….which would make the date of his his accident 1994….yet, this happened in 1978 (as the author states at the start of the article)….not “19 years ago”….c’mon guys, it’s pretty simple maths…..lift your game a bit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anatoli_Petrovich_Bugorski

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven Hiskey August 22, 2013 at 5:23 pm - Reply

      @vin: It’s called a typo vin. They happen when you write hundreds of thousands of words on a website. ;-) I know internet commenters the world over never believe that’s possible, but I assure you- typos happen. Don’t believe me? Run this article through copyscape. You will not find that I’ve “copied and pasted” any text from anyone. (In fact, any writer who works for me that I find does that, gets promptly fired.) What you will find is that quite the opposite of me copying others, pretty much every single result that comes up is people copying this article, published about 3 years ago, often word for word. You’ll even find Wikipedia itself uses TIFO’s articles as a source in quite a lot of pages, with many of those edits on their pages copying me word for word. I don’t mind though. Share the knowledge. :-)

      I do very much appreciate people catching typos. I don’t appreciate being called a plagiarist. In the end, maybe you should “lift your game a bit” in your accusations in internet commenting, and instead just say something like, “Hey, I noticed a typo. Here it is…” ;-)

  13. george November 29, 2013 at 7:03 am - Reply

    a proton beam have a pretty collision because protons are charged particles. In fact protons not highly accelerated travel at most a few centimeters through air before being stopped. For this reason the protons are moving in a synchrotron in vacuum and is not possible to “stick your head” into synchrotron. Sure once accelerated, part of the proton beam can be split an magnetically deflected to “bombard” the research target, which is what I suspect happened to Mr. Bugorsky, although the targets are usually in the vacuum chamber as well. I wonder if I can cross-check this story, too many details “do not compute”.

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