What Happens When You Stick Your Head Into a Particle Accelerator

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, 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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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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  • 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.

  • 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

  • “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

      @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. 🙂

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

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

  • 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?

  • “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

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

      • “Their” is plural, “his” is singular. Number disagreement does not forgive gender neutrality (at least in a sentence).

        I get what you’re saying, but it’s English, not German! 🙂

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Little known fact.

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

    • To John D – You sir are confusing Anatoli Bugorski with Anatoly Dyatlov. Dyatlov was vice-chief at Chernobyl (which is in the Ukraine). Bugorski never left Protvino, which is about 100 klicks outside Moscow.

  • 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.

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

  • 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

      @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…” 😉

  • 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”.

  • There wasn’t a typo from what I read in the article. It did say the speed of light, not the speed of sound. Also I just wanted you to know that I enjoy your articles, and I always seem to learn something that I didn’t know. Thank you for the ongoing education. Your never too old to learn something new.

    • Anita, the typo is not there any more because DH obviously fixed it in response to Andrea’s comment four years previous to yours.