What happens when you stick your head in a particle accelerator

Here's the fascinating story of Anatoli Petrovich Bugorski, the only person to have stuck his head into a particle accelerator. His head accidentally strayed into the path of the proton beam at the Institute for High Energy Physics in Protvino in 1978, and the beam bored a hole through his brain and out his nose. The radiation absorbed by his head was in the region of 1000 gray. 5 gray worth of X-rays is generally considered fatal, but Bugorski survived and went on to complete his PhD (a proton beam moving near the speed of light has different characteristics from an X-ray!). The side of his face that was burned by the beam's exit has not visibly aged in the years since the accident.

I attended the Clarion science fiction writing workshop at Michigan State University in 1992, and we were privileged to tour the university's Cyclotron. Of course, the first thing we asked was, "How do you kill someone with one of these?" (we'd been working on plotting). The scientist's answer was very disappointing -- he insisted that it was all very safe, with too many checks and balances to be a useful murder weapon. As I recall, he suggested that you could pry loose a brick from the wall and hit someone in the head with it.

As you can see from the picture, the beam entered the back of Bugorski's head and came out around his nose. Shortly after this happened, Bugorski's left half of his face swelled up beyond recognition. He was taken to the hospital and studied as this was something that had never been seen before and so they closely monitored him thereafter, fully expecting him to die within a few days at most.

Although the skin on the part of his face and back of his head where the beam hit eventually peeled off over the next few days, Bugorski did not die as they thought he would. The beam also burned through his skull and brain tissue along with the afore mentioned skin. However, ultimately he came through it all surprisingly well.

Despite the beam going through his brain, his intellectual capacity remained the same as before. 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 gets significantly more fatigued with mental work, though he did go on to get his PhD after this incident. The remaining side effects were occasional absence seizures and later tonic-clonic seizures, though these didn't show up right away.

What Happens When You Stick Your Head Into a Particle Accelerator (via Warren Ellis)

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  1. He lost the hearing in his left ear and experienced a constant unpleasant noise in that ear from then on.

    Worst super power ever.

  2. Note that your comparison of the fatal exposure threshold to the exposure Bugorski received isn’t quite appropriate. The very high dose to the exposed tissue within the beam will have severely damaged all the directly irradiated cells, but left most of the remainder of the body exposed at pretty low levels. The fatal 5 Gray threshold is for a whole body exposure, where all the cells within the body receive this dose, resulting in much greater overall damage.

  3. “Here at Protvino Institute for High Energy Physics, proton beam accelerate you.”

    Sorry, sorry. Mybad.

  4. “The side of his face that was burned by the beam’s exit has not visibly aged in the years since the accident.”

    Particle accelerator beauty treatments may be bigger than Botox.

  5. According to the article, it´s a fine (and cool) alternative to botox.

    “Let your wrinkles disappear with just a hit of our brand new Particle Accelerated Bean for Low Obesity (P.A.B.L.O.)”

    1. “Let your wrinkles disappear with just a hit of our brand new Particle Accelerated Bean for Low Obesity (P.A.B.L.O.)”

      A bean? and botox is used to treat obesity..?

      /so much fail

  6. Plenty of people who get shot with a bullet through one brain hemisphere survive. If anything, this seems less traumatic, since the wound is highly localized.

  7. The MSU cyclotron does not have a perfect safety record. A friend worked there in the ’80s. 2 people were killed in an explosion when they shorted out a live high voltage power bus. A tool instantly turned into metal plasma from the short and the explosion was fatal. But that’s an ordinary kind of accident that’s been killing people with electricity for over 100 years.

  8. – lost the hearing in his left ear
    – experienced a constant unpleasant noise in that ear
    – left half of his face paralyzed
    – significantly more fatigued with mental work
    – occasional absence seizures and later tonic-clonic seizures

    I realize he didn’t die but still this is more than “few negative health drawbacks”

  9. The scariest part of that whole story to me is that the beam gained 1000 gray worth of radiation before leaving his skull.

    The act of colliding with all those body tissues raised the radiation of the beam by 50%. Not surprising, maybe… high energy collisions release energy… but unsettling that it was collisions with a living human releasing that radiation.

  10. The side of his face that was burned by the beam’s exit has not visibly aged in the years since the accident.

    No photos? Seriously?

  11. You think that’s bad? My friends and I started a business back in the 80s that depended on unlicensed particle accelerators. You should see what happens when you cross the streams on those things.

  12. This should be called “what happens when you stick your head in a particle accelerator and you are the luckiest sonvabitch in the world”. Most people are not going to survive 200 times a fatal dose and blast through the head.
    Also, from previous articles I read, I understood that part of the reason his face looks unaged was that it was paralyzed similar to what you would get from the botox effect.

  13. Despite the beam going through his brain, his intellectual capacity remained the same as before.

    I’m not sure that this is noteworthy, considering that his prior intellectual capacity was demonstrated by sticking his head into a running particle accelerator.

  14. This reminds me of a pretty good book I read as a young science-oriented teen. Department politics and a love triangle result in a fake balsa wood beam cap on a university research reactor aimed conveniently at the vic’s office chair in the next room. Things don’t go as planned…experimental physics is always messier than the theoretical kind!!!

    The Neutron Beam Murder

    Physics Today Review, January 1966

  15. Actually, *not* the only guy to pull this stunt. A professor of mine (Peter McNulty) did it as well (intentionally, no less):

    Role of Cerenkov radiation in the eye-flashes observed by Apollo astronauts.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12678106

    “Visual phenomena in the form of colorless flashes of light were observed by astronauts in deep space when their eyes were closed and adapted to darkness. We describe in this paper laboratory experiments and calculations which indicate that many of these flashes are the result of visible light generated within the astronauts’ eyeball in the form of Cerenkov radiation when a relativistic HZE particle traverses it. The sensitivity to Cerenkov radiation measured for three subjects exposed to pulses of pions and muons and the visual phenomena observed were found to be consistent with the reports of flashes observed at rates as high as 2 per minute on Apollo missions 11 through 17.”

    Where do you get pulses of pions and muons other than a particle accelerator?

    (And yes, the beam was turned *way* down for the 3 subjects – Bugorski is probably the only guy who did it while a beam was at full power).

  16. Actually, not the first. I worked years ago at what was then Lawrence Radiation Lab in Berkeley and was told that when the Bevatron was built, the physicists aligned the beam by standing inside it as it pulsed and moving their heads around until the experienced visible Cherenkov radiation in their eye. They worked their way around the circuit, tuning the magnets.

    It didn’t work out well for most of them in the long run.

  17. excuse me for being ignorant – isnt the beam constant?
    if it isnt, ignore the following.

    if it is in fact constant, how come he has a simple hole and not say a wedge shaped tissue loss (assuming he pulled his head back slightly different from putting it in). or at least a groove?

    when darth chopped off luke´s hand with a constant beam (to give an example everyone can understand) – lukes hand got cut off. it did not get a clean hole through the wrist.
    know what i mean?

    1. Basically, because it’s not a light sabre.

      The density of the beam is kind of low, for one thing, and for another thing it’s not based on fantasy :)

      The damage is concentrated in a single line through his head because that’s where he stopped moving in the beam for too long, and got too many protons in one place.

    2. “when darth chopped off luke´s hand with a constant beam (to give an example everyone can understand) ”

      I don’t get it, who’s Darth?

    1. it didn’t say in the article, but i am pretty sure i read that he was doing maintenance on the inside of the accelerator, with it opened up, and somehow it was fired while he was working on it.
      there’s no other way to be in the path of the beam unless its opened up i think..

  18. It’s only a matter of time before some particle physicists get really drunk and start daring each other to stick their junk in the Large Hadron Collider.

  19. I agree that we need some pictures – when mentioned alongside the paralysis, it sounds like the anti-aging may be the result of Botox-like effects.

  20. Guys, guys. Particles are accelerated and collided in vacuum. If you stick your head into vacuum, you die, kindof.* If there is no vacuum in the accelerator, particles will collide with the molecules of air, not accelerate.

    So this is a hoax.

    * In the absence of outer pressure, your own heart’s pressure will tear your veins and make you bleed out of every possible hole.

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