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

This week Discover Magazine ran 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. This was in the Soviet Union at a time when talking about anything Nuclear related was not exactly encouraged, so he did not talk about it for the subsequent 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.

What did he experience?

Basically this …

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

Was that bad?

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

The Discover Magazine article describes the symptoms as follows  …

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.

Radiation harms us because it breaks apart the chemical bonds within our cells. If the dose is high enough, your cells can’t replicate and so the cells die. This leads to critical organs failing.

The brain tends to be a tad critical, so how 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 systems 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. Permit me to 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 perhaps guess, he was 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 lots more about this case 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 of course Dr Bruce Banner. Yes, this is the accidental exposure to a very high radiation dose that results in 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 particle accelerator then resist. To put that another way; kids, 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 seriously think, “Now what could possibly go wrong here?”

1 thought on “What Happens If You Stick Your Head in a Particle Accelerator?”

  1. I just want to point out that there is this thing called “proton beam therapy”, I suppose it is an alternative answer to the question poised by the title.


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