Nabihah Rahman


For any physicist, working in a laboratory environment isn’t always perfect. In fact, it is arguable that every scientist has that one major moment in a lab that defines their entire experience of working in one. For Anatoli Bugorski, a retired Russian particle physicist, his ‘major moment’ wasn’t just ‘major’: it was immense, quite miraculous, and possibly the strangest accident of all time. Bugorski was hit in the head by a high energy proton beam – and lived to tell the tale.

So, how exactly did this man come to be a scientific spectacle? Anatoli Bugorski was a PhD student at the Institute for High Energy Physics in Protvino; this enabled him to work at the largest particle accelerator in the Soviet Union – the U-70 synchrotron [1]. The 13th of July 1978 was supposed to be a day like any other for Bugorski; he would go around the particle accelerator, check that everything was working, and then probably call it a day and go home. Little did he know that this fateful day would change his life forever. While checking the operation of the accelerator, he noticed that a certain module from the synchrotron was malfunctioning. Bugorski saw that the lights from the synchrotron were turned off, meaning that the accelerator was also turned off. He hence had no reason to believe it unsafe to put his head into the channel to get a better view of the equipment, which is exactly what he proceeded to do [2].

What he saw next was a flash that was “brighter than a thousand suns” [2]. It turned out that the accelerator was on, and whoever was in charge of the previous experiment had forgotten to turn the lights back on. Within an extremely short amount of time, a 76 GeV proton beam penetrated through the back of Bugorski’s head, passing through his brain and left middle ear, and exiting through the left side of his nose [3]. You might assume that Bugorski was knocked unconscious by this point and was on the brink of death – but you would be wrong. Perhaps the most fascinating part of this story is that after seeing the bright flash, he felt completely fine. Despite having a momentary realisation of what had just occurred (and just how severe it was), Bugorski continued fixing the malfunctioning equipment and carried on with his day. He went on to report that he had repaired the malfunction, but strangely decided to keep the fact that he was struck by a high energy proton beam to himself1. This truly makes me wonder why he decided to keep it a secret; was he afraid of losing his job, the embarrassment, the potentially awkward conversation of having to explain that he got shot by protons, or a combination of all of these? He couldn’t keep it a secret for long, at least from those closest to him. In the next few days, the left side of Bugorski’s face was swollen to the extent that he was almost unrecognisable. The skin on the back of his head and the left side of his face began to peel, revealing the burning path that the beam had taken [2]. Over the next two years, the nerves on the left side of his face deteriorated, rendering his face half-paralysed. This means that the left side of his face hasn’t aged while the right side has, demonstrating that a proton beam might just be a worse version of Botox. Unfortunately, Bugorski also lost hearing in his left ear, and suffered from infrequent seizures ever since the incident. You would be right to wonder how he didn’t sustain worse injuries from radiation exposure; the beam measured 200,000 rads upon entering his skull, and left measuring 300,000 rads. To really put that into perspective, doses of 200 to 1000 rads over a few hours can be lethal [4]. Doses that are around 300 times smaller than that which Bugorski received are also used in present-day treatment of cancer [3]. The generally accepted reason of why Bugorski didn’t die from his exposure is that the beam was very narrowly focused, so it had very little impact that was not neurological.  So by some miracle, the journey of the proton beam had not come at the expense of his vital organs and his intellect, and thus he has been able to enjoy a good quality of life and outlive the U-70 synchrotron he worked at [1].

The trajectory of the proton beam through Bugorski’s skull [1].

While Anatoli Bugorski didn’t gain superpowers (that we know of) from the amount of radiation he was in contact with, his accident is testament to how important safety procedures are in experimental settings; indeed, no particle physicist should enter their field fearing the prospect of being hit in the head by a high energy particle beam. I think that we can all admire the fact that the incident didn’t deter Bugorski from pursuing his PhD and engaging in a career as a particle physicist… even if his scientific achievements may ever so slightly be overshadowed by him having been immortalised as ‘the man who stuck his head in a particle accelerator’[1].


References

[1] Tapalaga A. The Man Who Survived Over 300,000 rads. Medium. 2020 Jun 26 [cited 2021 Jan 24]. Available from: https://medium.com/history-of-yesterday/the-man-who-survived-over-300-000-rads-53dc590a1094

[2] Gessen M. The Future Ruins of the Nuclear Age. Wired. 1997 Dec 01 [cited 2021 Jan 24]. Available from: https://www.wired.com/1997/12/science-2/

[3] Scharping N. If You Stuck Your Head in a Particle Accelerator… Discover. 2017 Dec 04 [cited 2021 Jan 25]. Available from: https://www.discovermagazine.com/health/if-you-stuck-your-head-in-a-particle-accelerator#.WjID2yN0dp_

[4] Glasstone S. The Effects of Nuclear Weapons. United States, Knowledge Publications, 2006.