Stick Your Head in a Particle Accelerator

The Large Hadron Collider, operated by CERN, the famed European Organization for Nuclear Research, is the world’s biggest particle accelerator. Also known as “atom smashers” or “supercolliders,” accelerators are massive machines that use electromagnetic fields to launch particles at extraordinarily high speeds, usually near the speed of light.

Particle accelerators are on the leading edge of research in physics. The LHC features a tunnel that is 17 miles in circumference; it’s so large it reaches into two countries, France and Switzerland. This giant circle allows scientists to accelerate atoms and protons and electrons to super speeds and bash them into each other, conditions that can’t be matched artificially elsewhere. Weird things happen when particles collide. For example, the Higgs Boson was detected thanks to the LHC in 2012, a particle theorized to produce mass in the universe. These collisions create large amounts of energy. According to Wired, a Russian scientist provided this analogy: “it’s like two Soviet Fiats colliding to produce a bus and a Mercedes Benz 600.”

The Large Hadron Collider at CERN - photo by Maximilien Brice

The boom-booms at the LHC occur over 500 feet below the surface. Though subatomic particles are, well, small, you don’t really want to be near them when they collide.

But what would happen if, say, you stuck your head inside a particle accelerator? This question might seem a rhetorical, theoretical exercise, an accident meant to be avoided at all costs. And it should be just that.

But in 1978, Anatoli Bugorski found out what happens when a human’s head enters a particle accelerator.

The control room for the U-70 particle accelerator in Russia - image by A. Solomonov

The U-70 synchrotron was the largest particle accelerator in the Soviet Union. Anatoli Bugorski worked there in the 1970s as a particle physicist. On 13 July 1978, the accelerator malfunctioned. Bugorski leaned over some of the equipment with assurances that safety mechanisms were in place to keep the machine from restarting.

Well, when safety mechanisms malfunction some people get to find out answers to dangerous hypothetical questions.

A proton beam passed through Bugorski’s head at nearly the speed of light as he inspected the equipment. He later recalled that he saw a flash “brighter than a thousand suns” but, strangely, did not feel any pain. The beam contained a radiation dose of 200,000 rads. The beam entered the back of his head, passed through the occipital and temporal lobes of his brain, the middle of his left ear, and out through the left side of his nose. After colliding with the mass in his body, the beam is thought to have weighed in at 300,000 rads as it exited his nose.

A typical X-ray delivers about 0.01 rads. 500 to 600 rads are thought to be the killing range of radiation. Bugorski instantly recognized the severity of his situation but continued to work on the machine…

A diagram of the beam going through Bugorski's head

The left hemisphere of Bugorski’s head swelled like a pregnant cow. He thought of trying to hide the accident but realized that task was impossible when others noticed something very wrong with half of his face. The Soviets ushered him to a hospital in Moscow, where they figured doctors could observe his unique, ineluctable death.

Over the next several days, his skin began to peel, which revealed the path the beam took through his cranium. Doctors discovered the beam had burned through the flesh on his face, the bone in his skull, and the brain tissue. Clearly, Anatoli Bugorksi was a dead man.

Except that he never perished. Time went by and Bugorski clung to this mortal realm. In fact, as of publication in 2021, he is still alive!

Anatoli Bugorski lived to be an old man - photo by Andrey Solomonov

Miraculously, not only did Bugorski live, but he was back to work as a nuclear physicist in 18 months!

His intellectual abilities were not affected, save for increased mental fatigue when working for long periods. He did lose the ability to hear in his left ear and he occasionally suffers minor seizures. He married and has a son. Bugorski continued to work at the particle accelerator until retirement.

Though losing hearing and suffering seizures are heavy tolls to pay, Bugorski obviously could have endured a more gruesome fate. One additional aspect of his ordeal is complete paralysis of the left side of his face. As he has aged, the attribute becomes more and more pronounced because the right side of his face ages like that of a normal human, while the left side is profoundly wrinkle-free!

Wrinkles to the left (his right) of the line and none to the right (his left)

No matter how interesting it might sound to experience the light of a thousand suns, I suggest everyone decide not to heed the title of this article. Do NOT put your head in an atom smasher, given the choice!

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