There are certain truths in life that everyone needs to believe at face value. And one of them states that one should never insert their head in a particle accelerator- because that is assuredly fatal. Now- this should be just a cautionary tale- something to put fear in the minds of budding scientists. But as it turns out, this isn’t just a caution- this is also a story of a time not too long ago when this turned into a horrific tragedy.
Anyone who has ever worked in a science lab would tell us that it is very important that one follows all the rules that are designed for one’s protection and safety. So, if it is important to put glasses on before dealing with harmful gases or liquids, it is also important to not put your head in something as dangerous and unpredictable as a particle accelerator. The basis for this is simple- you wouldn’t put your head before a cannon, right? Therefore, why would someone put their head before something that can shoot atomic particles at the very speed of light?
The strange story of Anatoli Bugorski, who was accidentally struck by a particle-accelerator beam in 1978. He lost hearing in one ear, suffered seizures…and seemingly slowed the aging process on one side of his face.https://t.co/vsO6E0WG0f pic.twitter.com/2upRDXve0P
— Corey S. Powell (@coreyspowell) May 5, 2021
Anatoli Bugorski- The Man Who Put His Head Into Particle Accelerator And Lived To Tell The Tale
Unfortunately, Anatoli Bugorski of the erstwhile Soviet Union didn’t really follow through on the rules. So one day when he was working, he probably listened to his intrusive thoughts and stuck his head in a particle accelerator. And what happened after that is something that has been considered to be a medical mystery.
Anatoli was born on the 25th of June, 1942, when the Second World War was at its peak. But thirty years down the line, he found himself working as a researcher at the Institute for High Energy Physics. This Insitute was located in Protvino. From being a newborn in a World War to playing quite a role in the Cold War, Anatoli definitely saw the world a bit differently.
In this institute, Anatoli was asked to work on the U-70 synchrotron- which is simply a proton accelerator. Back in the day, it was considered to generate the highest beam of energy in the world. Even today, it is still one of the highest energy accelerators in the country. Fortunately, (or unfortunately), Anatoli became famous for a completely different role in this. While his peers would go on to attain fame as venerable scientists, Anatoli became famous for surviving a radiation accident that should have pulverized him into dust.
On the 13th of July, 1978, the 36-year-old was tweaking the equipment when he inserted his head inside it to see where the problem lay. As luck would have it, the safety mechanism was also turned off during previous experiments and had not been activated since then. So when he put his head inside, the machine was still highly active.
This is when things got really tricky and dangerous. The proton beam hit the back of the scientist’s head, and while he didn’t feel any pain- he knew something had gone terribly wrong. Later, he would talk about how he saw a flash of light that was brighter than a thousand suns.
The aftermath of this incident saw him quietly working on the machine even after being exposed to an insane amount of radiation. Rather than tell people about it, he went home to deal with the effects alone. Medical reports later stated that this proton beam had passed through his head and traveled along the temporal and occipital lobes of the brain. The beam then moved through his middle ear- after which it exited his body through the left side of his nose.
The Radiation He Was Exposed To Should Have Ideally Killed Him
Any individual with a working knowledge of basic biology would tell you that our ears and our brains have quite a big role to play in everyday human function. The occipital lobe is especially more significant when we talk about visual processing. On the other hand, the temporal lobe is that part of the brain which is entirely responsible for processing all of the sensory input for mass retention.
So when Anatoli put his head in a particle accelerator, the beam went through his middle ear- which is also called the tympanic cavity- which connects the brain to the Eustachian tube. The main function of this part of the ear is to turn the waves of acoustic energy into fluid-membrane waves present in the cochlea. As we know, radiation usually causes most of the chemical bonds that are in control of the DNA to start breaking- and when there is enough radiation- it can also cause the cells to start losing the ability to duplicate. The cells then start dying- which leads to organ failure.
While it is quite surprising that Anatoli did escape with his life even after putting his head in a particle accelerator, it doesn’t mean that it didn’t affect him adversely. The day after he suffered through this ordeal, the left part of his face had swollen beyond recognition, and most hospitals in Moscow stated that there was nothing to be done to cure this scientist.
Nevertheless, medical scientists and doctors kept him in the clinic because they wanted to study him after death because this was the first ever instance of a human sticking their head inside something so dangerous. Over the next couple of weeks, his skin started peeling- and doctors could see burnt portions of his brain, bone, skin, and face- where the proton beam had passed through him. Surprisingly- he should have died, but he miraculously survived the entire incident.
Even Though He Survived, He Still Had A Lot of Physical and Mental Trauma To Last A Lifetime
The radiation did leave a lot of side effects- which also involved his facial nerves burning completely. The left side of the scientist’s face was completely paralyzed- and his left ear lost all hearing. This damage also caused the scientist to experience multiple seizures throughout his life- but he also went through something quite strange. It was discovered that the left side of the face- the part which was paralyzed- was not aging. While the right side of his face aged naturally over the course of his life, the left side was in a state of stasis. Nevertheless, this didn’t deter Anatoli from his experiments and research, as he completed his Ph.D. and also continued working at the same institute.
As was usual in the times of the Cold War, the secrecy that bound most information regarding nuclear power in the USSR meant that Anatoli could not speak about it until the end of the Cold War. In fact, it took him close to a decade to even start articulating his ordeal.
But, this didn’t stop the researchers from researching him as he had to regularly visit a radiation clinic that would be monitoring his condition. At these clinics, he slowly started getting acquainted with other victims of nuclear accidents. When he started talking about the incidents to the media, he also stated that he considered himself and the other victims to be former inmates- as they had all the information about the other- and they were completely aware of what had happened to everyone else. Since there were not many victims of nuclear accidents- they knew everyone’s life stories.
The End of The Soviet Union Brought More Trouble At His Doorstep
Fortunately, the tale of Anatoli Bugorski is not entirely tragic. The man who put his head in a particle accelerator is still alive and recently celebrated his 80th birthday in 2022. He is also married with an adult son, and to this day lives in Protvino, Russia. While he is fine with researchers still studying his conditions, they need to come to Protvino- as he doesn’t have the finances to leave the city and travel abroad.
Protvino was one of those towns which experienced a boom during the Cold War as the USSR government decided to invest in this city for scientific and technological research. Scientists and their families would be residing in these towns- which were a couple of hours away from the next big city. But this also posed a major problem.
When the Cold War ended in 1990 and the USSR collapsed in 1991, these towns went through extreme financial crises as there was no government in place to fund them. Science towns like Protvino lacked the infrastructure where a scientist could successfully transform their career from a researcher to a banker- or any other profession which would give them a stable income. These scientists also lived quite far away from any city that had infrastructural development in place and didn’t have the funds to relocate. This is why Anatoli had to apply for disability status in 1996 to receive his medication for epilepsy for free. Surprisingly, he was denied- even though he was the poster child for Soviet radiation medicine.
Image credit: 123RF