What Happens When You Put Your Head Inside a Particle Accelerator?

What Happens When You Put Your Head Inside a Particle Accelerator?

Written By: Soňa Mária Gajdošová

Artwork By Lucas Poirier

A particle accelerator is a large machine used to speed up charged particles, making them high in energy through the use of electromagnetic fields. These particles achieve incredible speeds (almost reaching the speed of light) in order to collide with other particles. This process is used for research in particle physics.

Currently, there are more than 30,000 particle accelerators in the world, the most powerful one being the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). LHC is located near Geneva, Switzerland in The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).

Obviously, one should not personally interfere with a highly energetic beam of particles, but what would happen if someone did? Would they die? Well based on the evidence, getting hit by sped-up protons or electrons technically has a 100% survival rate. But the thing is, this is based on one person’s experience. 

Anatoli Bugorski is a Russian particle physicist notorious for getting hit by a high-energy proton beam that passed through his brain. The accident occurred in July 1978, when he was working with a U-70 synchrotron particle accelerator at the Institute for High Energy Physics in Protvino, the largest one in the Soviet Union. The accelerator was still powered on when mechanisms that should’ve prevented this any confusion failed to do so. The light bulb indicating danger was fatefully turned off before Bugorski entered. He went in to look at the machine and according to him, saw a light “brighter than a thousand suns.” No pain was felt, but he was aware of what had just happened. Any normal person would probably freak out, rush to the E.R., and call their family members – but not Bugorski – as he instead decided to go on with his day, finish his work, and tell no one.

The following morning, his face was swollen beyond recognition, finally convincing him to pay a visit to the doctor. No one believed him at first, but his side effects proved the truthfulness of his statements. The radiation Bugorski has absorbed from the beam was probably over 200,000 rads (unit of absorbed radiation dose). To put this into perspective, the apparent amount of rads it takes to kill a person is 500. Despite this, our victim merely suffered damaged tissue. When his skin started to peel off, scientists were able to pinpoint the exact trajectory the beam had passed through, concluding that it had reached the back of his head through his nose. 

Remarkably, Bugorski is still alive to this day. However, he has lost hearing and muscle control on the left side of his face and suffers from seizures. Since program funding was cut, Bugorski struggled to pay for the epilepsy treatment. After the incident, he still went on to complete his Ph.D. degree by defending his thesis. Due to the secrecy of the Soviet Union, Bugorski did not talk about the accident until a decade later. 

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