A Man Put His Head In A Particle Accelerator In July 1978 a Soviet scientist made the fateful decision to place his head inside a particle accelerator – a hi-tech piece of hardware used for moving subatomic particles at incredible speeds. Before the scientist knew what was happening, a charged proton stream had struck his skull at around 670 million miles per hour. And with that single blinding flash, everything changed… Arguably, nothing has done more to advance humanity than science; indeed, it’s because of curious scientists that superstition has mostly given way to reason. Thanks to those working in the field, we enjoy never-before-seen levels of comfort and mobility. And science’s spirit of inquiry can be summed up by the 18th-century Latin motto “Sapere aude” – or “Dare to know.” But daring to know is not quite enough; we must also glean clear evidence available to the senses. And formal scientific method is what separates professional researchers from hapless Marvel comic book heroes. Unfortunately, however, such rigor was lacking in one Soviet scientist’s close-up encounter with a particle accelerator… Particle accelerators were first engineered in the 1930s in order to learn more about the structure of matter. Put simply, these machines use magnetism to move particles at very high speed. When those particles then crash into one another, they leave observable traces from which scientists can glean information. And, ultimately, the results of the collisions can help prove or disprove theories concerning the mysteries of the universe. Now, the largest particle accelerator on the planet is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which incorporates a 16.7-mile loop that particles zoom around. The machine is even capable of creating tiny black holes. And in 2012 LHC experiments confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson – a particle that has helped explain how others obtain mass. Back in the 1970s, though, the Soviet Union was a leading light in particle physics research. In fact, the award-winning U-70 synchrotron collider – constructed in 1967 – was the most powerful particle accelerator in the world at the time. And even today, the U-70 remains the most energetic synchrotron of its kind in Russia. Now if, as with us, it’s been a while since you were in school, here’s the science behind some aspects of a particle accelerator. A proton is a positively charged subatomic particle and an essential ingredient in the nucleus of an atom. And while protons were once thought to be the smallest and final pieces of an atom, they are now known to each contain three even smaller particles called quarks. But let’s get back to our ill-fated Soviet scientist. On July 13, 1978, the U-70 wasn’t functioning as it should. Research scientist Anatoli Bugorski happened to be working at the institute that day, and perhaps in an attempt to discover what was up, he inserted his head inside the machine. Then, at a critical moment, something went wrong. Somehow, the beam fired – and it headed towards the unfortunate researcher. The experience was seemingly brief and painless, although Bugorski later reported having seen a burst of light “brighter than a thousand suns.” In that single life-changing moment, the U-70 had fired a highly charged beam of protons straight through the scientist’s head. And the physical impact of receiving such a high-powered dose of proton radiation was, at that time, entirely unknown. Indeed, proton radiation appears relatively rarely in nature. One known source is solar wind – a beam of particles that radiate from the Sun. Cosmic rays coming from deep space are another. But in both cases, the Earth’s atmosphere stops the radiation reaching us. And it was not until 1970 that scientists detected proton radiation in radioactive decay. Since proton radiation damages DNA, destroys cells and may even cause cancer, though, its relative scarcity is a good thing for biological life. Such radiation can also disrupt the making of red and white blood cells in marrow, which is why high doses often lead to anemia and infections. That said, proton beams can have positive effects as well – specifically in the treatment of some forms of cancer. Cancerous cells divide at a rapid rate and are therefore susceptible to the kind of DNA damage caused by proton radiation. Furthermore, this kind of treatment has several advantages over other forms of radiotherapy because it can be specifically directed at particular tumors. But the beam that went through Bugorski’s head in 1978 was far more powerful than those used in conventional radiotherapy. In fact, its electron voltage was approximately 76 billion, compared to the 250 million used in proton therapy. And the beam’s radiation level, which is measured in units called “grays,” was approximately 2,000 to 3,000. To put that in perspective, generally, exposure to over five grays typically results in death. Consequently, following his accident, Bugorski was placed under observation at a Moscow clinic. And there was little hope that the scientist would still be alive even a week later; after all, the proton beam had struck the back of his skull, passed through his brain and come out close to his nostril. In the following minutes and hours, one of the first visible effects of the accident was the heavy swelling of Bugorski’s face. The proton beam had actually scorched parts of his brain and skull, leaving him deaf in one ear. And after the initial swelling, the skin around the beam’s entry and exit points began to peel. Fortunately, the injury did not turn out to be fatal. Although the beam had subjected Bugorski to extremely high levels of radiation, its path had been incredibly thin, and its aim had been precise. In fact, the radiation had seemingly had no impact on any surrounding organs; Bugorski’s bone marrow and other susceptible tissues were apparently relatively unscathed. Nonetheless, the incident left Bugorski with several long-term health problems. For one thing, the left side of his face suffered severe nerve damage, leaving it paralyzed and seemingly untouched by ageing. For another, the scientist’s hearing never returned to his left ear. And there is also a strong indication that he may have suffered permanent brain damage. Specifically, Bugorski suffered grand mal seizures after his injury. Marked out by powerful convulsions and bouts of unconsciousness, these fits are also called generalized tonic-clonic seizures. Such episodes are prompted by irregular electrical impulses in the brain and are generally associated with epilepsy. Bugorski is alive today, however, and is presently in his 70s. After the incident, he went on to finish his Ph.D. and served as coordinator of physics experiments for the Soviet Union. Just to see how he was doing, Bugorski also underwent physical exams at a medical facility in Moscow every six months for a period. But perhaps the most incredible part of his brush with a proton beam is the fact that – as far as we know – he has not as yet developed cancer. So, while professional physicists will remember Bugorski for his years of scientific service, almost everyone else will likely be aware of him thanks to his accident with a particle accelerator. Perhaps, then, since Bugorski put himself in the way of danger for science, he’s even something of a hero – just not quite the kind you may find in comic books.