What Happens If You Stick Your Head in a Particle Accelerator?

This week Discover Magazine has run the story of what happened to Russian Scientist Anatoli Bugorski when he accidentally stuck his head inside a particle accelerator.

It all happened back in 1978, but this was the Soviet Union at a time when talking about anything Nuclear related was not exactly encouraged, so he did not talk about what had happened for the next decade.

The Accident

It happened while Bugorski, a Ph.D student at the time, was working on a piece of malfunctioning equipment on the U-70 synchrotron. As he was leaning in, a safety mechanism failed and his head was exposed to the 76 GeV proton beam.

So what happened, what did he experience?

Basically this …

saw a flash brighter than a thousand suns. He felt no pain.

Was that bad?

An exposure to about 500 to 600 rads should in theory kill you. When the beam hit his skull it was a dose of about 200,000 rads, and yet he survived.

The Discover Magazine article describes the symptoms  …

The left side of his face ballooned to comical proportions, and his skin blistered and peeled off where the beam had struck, but those symptoms were only temporary. He lost hearing in his left ear, replaced by a form of tinnitus, and the left side of his face gradually became completely paralyzed. In the long-term, Bugorski suffered for a time from both petit mal and grand mal seizures and found that he became more easily mentally fatigued. He nevertheless went on to earn his doctorate, and even returned to work at the same facility where his accident occurred.

The way that radiation harms us is that it breaks apart the chemical bonds within our cells. If the dose is high enough then your cells can no longer replicate and as the cells die causing critical organs to fail then so do you. So why did he survive?

The speculation is this (and it makes sense) …

That the beam was narrowly focused likely helped, however. Most radiation exposure affects the whole body, meaning that whole organ system are affected. In Bugorski’s case, only his brain received any exposure to the radiation, keeping the damage concentrated to that area. He may have just been lucky, and the beam missed important areas of his brain, or perhaps proton beams affect the body differently than other sorts of radiation.

All this very much reminds me of a rather famous bit of medical history, so let me tell you about that.

Phineas Gage

Back in 1848 a chap named Phineas Gage was overseeing a gang of men working on blasting rock as preparation for a rail roadbed. The process involved boring a hole into the rock, filling it with blasting powder and a fuse, then capping it off with sand and detonating it. As he was doing this and was in the process of pushing the blasting powder down with a long metal rod called a tempering rod, his attention was distracted and he looked up. This brought his head into alignment with the hole. The tempering iron  sparked and set off the blast sending the tamping iron up through his head.

It should have killed him, but it did not. Within a few minutes he sat up and was talking. His crew took him into town to a doctor …

Physician Edward H. Williams, found Gage sitting in a chair outside the hotel, and was greeted with one of the great understatements of medical history. He wrote it all later as follows …

When I drove up he said, “Doctor, here is business enough for you.” I first noticed the wound upon the head before I alighted from my carriage, the pulsations of the brain being very distinct. The top of the head appeared somewhat like an inverted funnel, as if some wedge-shaped body had passed from below upward. Mr. Gage, during the time I was examining this wound, was relating the manner in which he was injured to the bystanders. I did not believe Mr. Gage’s statement at that time, but thought he was deceived. Mr. Gage persisted in saying that the bar went through his head. Mr. G. got up and vomited; the effort of vomiting pressed out about half a teacupful of the brain [through the exit hole at the top of the skull], which fell upon the floor

He survived and lived for another twelve years, but as you might anticipate what not the same man.

If you study neurology, psychology, or neuroscience then this story will be very familiar. Very little is actually known regarding the precise details of his before and after mental state and so a great deal of medical folklore has been established by various exaggerated claims. What is factual is that after the destruction of his left frontal lobe his friends saw him as “no longer Gage.”.

You can read rather a lot about it all here, and that includes an interesting discussion on the exaggeration and distortion of his mental changes.

One Further example

Apart from the Phineas Gage story there is one other cultural reference that will quite naturally spring up. This time it is fiction and the name is Dr Bruce Banner where an accidental exposure to a very high radiation dose is the backstory for the creation of the Marvel hero Hulk.

To state the rather obvious – radiation exposure does not create superheroes, so if you are ever tempted to stick your head inside a partical accelerator then resist, or to put that another way, don’t try this at home.

We all know this and that is perhaps why we laugh when we find signs such as the following, but don’t feel any real concern, or actually seriously think, “Now what could possibly go wrong here?”

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