Particle accelerators are machines that propel charged particles at extremely high speeds to collide with other particles. But one man learned the hard way that a human head should not enter the machine.
On July 13, 1978, particle physicist Anatoli Bugorski was working his job at the U-70 synchrotron, the largest particle accelerator in the Soviet Union. The 36-year-old was inspecting a piece of equipment that had malfunctioned when the accident happened.
But he was unaware that several safety mechanisms had also failed. So when he leaned over to look at his task, a proton beam shot through the back of his head at almost the speed of light.
He says at first he felt no pain, but he knew what happened because he saw a light that was “brighter than a thousand Suns.”At first, he felt no pain. At that point, he didn’t tell anyone yet. He continued his day of work and went home and waited for the inevitable to happen.
Absorbing 5 grays (500 rads) of radiation would usually kill someone. And Bugorski didn’t know it at the time, but he had been hit with 2,000-3,000 grays (200,000-300,000 rads). In the middle of the night, his face started to swell beyond recognition. He went to the doctor’s the next morning. He was taken to a clinic in Moscow, mainly so his death could be observed, as there was no expectation that his life could be saved.
In the next few days, his skin peeled off around the entry and exit wounds, revealing a clean path burned right through his skin, skull, and brain.
Remarkably, he survived. The brain tissue continued to burn away over the years, and his face became paralyzed on the left side, where his hearing was also lost. Weirdly, the right side of his head has shown signs of aging over the years, while his left side has not.
Over the next few decades, he experienced seizures but remained functional. He continued his work as a physicist, and completed a PhD. Even though it caused massive damage, the narrow focus of the beam likely kept the damage limited to an area of brain that he could live without.
For a decade after the accident, he was unable to tell anyone due to the notorious secrecy of the Soviet Union. But he survived well beyond the end of the USSR. In fact, the man who put his head in a particle accelerator is still alive today.