The Story Of The Scientist Who Put His Head Into A Particle Accelerator…And Survived


Imagine that going through your noggin Image CERN

A Russian scientist named Anatoli Petrovich Bugorski once suffered an injury unlike any other when he accidentally put his head into a particle accelerator. 

When two protons collide in an accelerator they are moving at the speed of sound.

Wired magazine put it more succinctly in a 1997 article, “one Russian physicist offers this analogy: it’s like two Soviet Fiats colliding to produce a bus and a Mercedes Benz 600. That’s the thing about high-energy physics: the total is different than the sum of its parts.”

Anatoli after the accident

In 1978, a 36-year old Bugorski was working at the Institute for High Energy Physics in Protvino, a town south of Moscow Oblast. One of the Soviet Union’s 60 science boomtowns during the Cold War. He was checking a piece of accelerator equipment from the U-70 Synchrotron which was the most powerful proton accelerator in the world at the time.

A section of the machine had stopped working for some reason, so the scientist stuck his head into the track where a particle beam charges through like a pack of stampeding elephants from one part of an accelerator tube to the next, on its way to collide with another beam travelling in the opposite direction. He assumed the many safety components would prevent any overlap while he inspected. Turns out those weren’t working either. 

When the beam entered Bugorski’s skull it shot through his brain and exited out the left side of his nose, slicing open his nostril. He said he saw a flash “brighter than a thousand suns” and felt zero pain. Doctors expected him to be dead within two weeks.

According to the powers that be, when quantifying the deadly impact of radiation; 500 – 600 rads is enough to kill a human being. Radiation therapy only goes up to about 200 rads. When the beam entered Burgoski’s head it measured 200,000 rads and when it exited it was at 300,000. 

The aftermath of his injuries consisted of a face swollen beyond recognition while the skin at the entry and exit wound began to peel away. Over the next few years, the inside of his head was also burning away around the path of impact, taking a group nerves with it and paralyzing the left side of his face.

Despite all these life threatening occurrences, the man didn’t die and was able to function normally, even receiving his PhD. He did have a smattering of seizures over the decades and miraculously the left side of his face is frozen in time. This means that while his right side is age appropriate, the other is still 36 years old. Even now, at the ripe old age of 74.

December 1994, Sipadan, Borneo --- School of Neon Fusiliers --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis
December 1994, Sipadan, Borneo --- School of Neon Fusiliers --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

At the time the event was top-secret and buried by the Soviet Union, years later the world found out and Anatoli offered himself up for scientific research. He’s still alive, fighting fit and goes down in history as the only person to have experienced this.

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