One Man. One Particle Accelerator. Crazy Results.

Russian scientist Anatoli Bugorksi went to work on July 13, 1978 with the expectation that things would be business as usual. But when a particle accelerator stopped working and Bugorski stepped up to make the fix, what happened next left the scientific community in shock.

The Powerful Particle Accelerator

A particle accelerator in a factory.

A particle accelerator, in short, accelerates particles. In more detail, this machine shoots particles at extremely high speeds in order for scientists to study what exactly happens at minuscule levels. But what happens when a human is hit with one of these particles flying at an extremely fast speed? The outcome can't be pretty, right?

This question was impossible to answer, up until around 1978...

Right vs. Wrong

A man resting his arm on a side of a bridge, looking off into the distance.

Without a doubt, there's been a heaping amount of mistakes that humans have made in the pursuit of science. We once thought the Earth was flat (and some still do), that the sun moves around the Earth, and many, many more scientific theories that we have debunked. One discovery scientists made from trial and error and stuck to is that humans don't make for the best test subjects.

While we typically avoid testing on humans at all costs, one accidental case in 1978 may make you a bit sick to your stomach...

An Unplanned Experiment

A woman with her back turned in a science lab.

Frankly, sticking a man's head into a particle accelerator, a.k.a basically a death machine, would have never been approved as an experiment. For one, it isn't ethical. Once you realize what just one of these speedy particles can do, you'll understand why.

When a man risks it all and goes quite literally head first into it, the results will send chills racing down your spine. You might want to brace yourself for what's to come...

Soaring At the Speed of Light

A large, metal particle accelerator.

So, just how fast is a particle accelerator?

When a particle accelerator is activated, their particles soar at an alarmingly fast rate of 99.994 percent of the speed of light. If you're unsure, that's extremely fast. In fact, that translates to around 670,576,392 miles per hour. This hefty, dangerous technology is not a force to be reckoned with. But like with any object of sufficient mass flying at the speed of light, the thing it collides with isn't exactly going to have a jolly time.

To truly understand how unfortunate the Soviet scientist was, journey to the next slide for a bone-chilling science lesson...

Two Worlds Collide

A beam of multi-colored light.

Typically, when an object traveling as fast as light collides with a still, unsuspecting object, the result is a catastrophic explosion. Take asteroids, for example. These dense, gigantic materials don't require as much speed or energy to do a great amount of damage. But when the speed of it is increased, the mass can't be much less to do the same amount of damage.

While most of us knew that asteroids are large and scary, this next piece of information may have you saying "oh my god"...

The Oh-My-God Particle

Beams of light with a dark purple background.

This specific particle contains 100 quintillion times the energy that a regular photon has. Because of this formidable speed, physicists gave it a name that truly captures it's awe-inspiring essence, the Oh-My-God particle (yes, that's what it's really called). But when testing this fast-flying spec, the particle didn't do much damage. This is because of its teeny-weeny size; for something to travel this fast, it must be extremely small. In fact, the damage is equivalent to an inertly thrown baseball.

But if the Oh-My-God particle came in contact with human flesh and bone, would the outcome be different?

The Factors of the Damage

A woman working a particle accelerator.

While it's clear by now that the damage from a particle accelerator is not to be messed with, there's several factors that go into the amount of damage it will do. First of all, it depends on the speed of the particle; the more quickly it moves, the more damage. In the case of the hapless Russian scientist, the machine was the Synchrotron U-70, which is not the most powerful. But in 1978, it was, meaning the particles would travel at the speed of light.

We know what the scientist did, but what events led up to this ill-fated event?

A Day to Remember

Two men in construction hats reading a paper.

Believe it or not, Russian scientist Anatoli Petrovich Bugorski didn't stick his head into this deadly machine on purpose. In fact, on the day in question, Bugorski set out to fix the Synchroton U-70 that appeared to have stopped working, or so he thought. While the machine had precautions to make sure the proton beam is off when someone enters inside the accelerator's steely chamber, in this case, they failed. Suddenly, Bugorski found himself trapped inside of the machine while heavy protons near the speed of light shot directly at him.

It's hard to imagine this horrifying event from Bugorski's perspective. So, what exactly did he see?

A Light Brighter Than A Thousand Suns

A flash of green and purple specks of light.

In his petrifying experience, Bugorski said that what he first saw was a "light brighter than a thousand suns," which actually was the protons entering his face and exiting the other side. These protons are not something to take lightly. In an x-ray, you find a few five grays of radiation. In a particle accelerator, you find two to three thousand.

Now the question becomes this: What happens when you're struck with radiation levels of this capacity?

The Effects of Radiation

A woman laying on an x-ray table and a doctor standing over her.

Radiation sickness comes from being exposed to a massive amount of radiation over a short period of time. From nausea and vomiting to fatigue and burns, the side effects of this sickness are ones to avoid.

While it's a widely known fact that .75 grays of exposure will likely result in death, the amount of radiation that certain events give off is often unknown. So, just how much radiation is too much?

Amounts of Radiation

Three yellow buckets with the radioactive symbol on the front of them.

To be frank, any amount of radiation is too much. A large amount or small, it doesn't take more than a couple of mutated cells to breed harmful tumors... and a particle accelerator exposes you to a mind-blowing amount of 3000 grays.

To put it into perspective, a typical x-ray will only expose you to 0.0001 gray. Even crazier, a nuclear fallout will expose you to around 2 to 50. Ouch.

But what happens when the exposure is concentrated in one place?

Isolated Exposure

A woman doctor looking at an x-ray on a computer.

A couple of frightening side effects happen when a small section of skin is subject to 15 to 20 grays of radiation. First, you feel your skin experience swelling, redness, and itchiness. A week later, the affected region will lose all of its hair. In the week after that, the skin will begin to peel. If the level of radiation is heightened to something like 50 grays, the effects will occur almost instantly.

Knowing that information, imagine what happened when Bugorski experience 3000 grays from the particle accelerator. Prepare yourself, the results aren't pretty.

Acute Radiation Syndrome (It Is, In Fact, Not Cute)

A closeup of a man's hand in a fist with a hospital bracelet.

When your body is expose to 2 grays of radiation, you experience acute radiation syndrome. The results of this sickness comes in four waves, and the extent of each phase depends on the amount of radiation you're exposed to. But the good news is that you'd need around 3.5 grays in order to induce death from full body radiation.

So just what are the effects of this syndrome?

The Effects of Radiation Sickness

Blue and yellow cells.

Once a person gets radiation sickness, their rapidly dividing cells and bone marrow begin to die. The side effects of this aren't favorable—vomiting, diarrhea, fever, sweating, and fatigue. But when the full-body exposure is more severe, the person's blood pressure immediately drops, resulting in explosive diarrhea. Even worse, it usually results in death.

While the side effects of radiation sickness are not so pleasant, how were they for Bugorski, who experienced 3000 grays?

The Horrible After Effects

A bald spot on a man's head.

Because the proton beam entered from the back of Bugorski's skull and out his nose, the result was an intense burning sensation. The area that the exposure to the radiation occurred also immediately lost all of its hair. But even worse, Bugorski's face started to swell rapidly, so badly that he was barely recognizable.

Would he make it out alive? was the question on everyone's minds.

A Matter of Life or Death

A skull with a black background.

The chances of Bugorski surviving this gruesome accident wass very small. No one had ever been exposed to this level of radiation before, so he wasn't expected to live past a few more days.

As time went on, his condition only got worse. The skin on his face began to peel and fall off, and the burning spread to his cerebral tissue inside of his brain.

How could Bugorski beat the odds and live through this tragedy?

Beating the Odds

A close-up of a hearing aid in an ear.

It was nothing short of a miracle when Bugorski managed to live through this tragic experience. Although he lived, he obtained a list of other problems that lowered his quality of life. He had partial paralysis, hearing loss in his left ear, and intense fatigue that lasted nearly all day, every day.

But among this long list of problems, one of the more serious of them was the rare form of seizures he obtained.

Tonic-Clonic Seizure

An outline of a person's face with a spark of light inside.

A few years after the incident, Bugorski developed a rare type of seizure, the tonic-clonic seizure, which happens in less than 10 percent of the epileptic population.

When there's hyperactivity in one localized region of the brain, a seizure is induced. But while seizures normally take place on one side of the brain, Bugorski's side was the part struck by the particle beam. This meant that the radiation from the beam damaged the surrounding regions that it passed.

But other than a rare form of seizures, Bugorski experienced another upsetting effect: partial paralysis.

Partial Youth

A sketch of a little boy with paralysis.
See page for author (CC BY 4.0).

Because of the accident, Bugorski experience paralysis on one side of his face. And on this side of the face, he appears more youthful. The harm done to its nerves and muscle fibers produced the outcome to something approximate to Botox.

But like with any amount of harmful radiation, many other side effects occur...

Radiation and Its Effects

A radiation symbol on a flag with a cross through it.

When a human is exposed to a severe amount of radiation, there is an eventual decay and death of the cells that were exposed weeks after the incident. With this decay comes several unfavorable side effects, like burns and boils. After that, the skin begins to become swollen, red, itchy, and it begins to deteriorate.

The type of radiation and particles that you're exposed to, of course, will determine the level of damage that you experience...

Alpha Particles

An image of alpha particles.
Popular Science Monthly Volume 87 [Public domain].

Alpha particles are one of the most harmless forms of radiation you can experience, because they are weak when they travel and easy to deflect. Even a simple sheet of paper can block these particles from entering the skin. But to do any damage at all, they would have to be ingested.

But these next particles are a little more intense...

Beta Particles

A black and white image of beta particles.

Beta particles are extremely small but are much more capable of penetrating the skin than alpha particles. Although clothing can protect you from these blasts, when they come in contact with skin, the skin develops red splotches, itchiness, and swelling. And over time, it could result in cell death.

As for the next particles, you really don't want to mess with them...

Gamma Rays and Neutrinos

An image of a gamma ray.
NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration [Public domain]

Next up are particles that are the most dangerous in the vast world of radiation. Once struck by these minuscule particles, a person will experience irritation throughout the entire body. And with enough exposure, they can lead to radiation poisoning and death.

But are there ways to amend the damages of radiation poisoning?

Radiation Poisoning Treatment

A boy in a machine with two doctors.
Photo Credit:Content Providers(s): CDC [Public domain].

While the effects of radiation poisoning are not pretty, there are certain cures and remedies for it. First, there's trying to replace the affected blood, which helps replace depleted white blood cells and restores your immune system so it can do its job.

Another remedy is antibiotics and breathing machines. When your body is on assisted living like this, you have to perform less in your daily duties, making it easier for your body to focus on recovery.

But what happens when treatment fails?

Cell Death

A demonstration of Apoptosis.

When the DNA of your cells is compromised, apoptosis occurs, or the process of cell death. The cells break off into little pieces and degenerate, causing the cellular remains to be used up by other cells in the body. But with enough cellular decomposition in the body, one can experience necrosis, cellular rot, burns, and much more...

Proton Therapy

A desk with a lot of computers and a doctor sitting at it.
David Monniaux (CC BY-SA 3.0)

But while radiation can be extremely harmful, some of its practices can be beneficial. In proton therapy, radiation is used to treat cancers, not breed them. In this therapy, a small beam of protons is directed towards a small region of the body and is meant to destroy the directed area, killing cancer cells along with it. For cancer patients, this dramatically increases recovery.

But for Bugorski, his prognosis wasn't so clear...

A Prognosis of Uncertainty

A closeup of a doctor holding a stethoscope.

Since no human had experienced the level of radiation that Bugorski did, many doctors of the clinic expected him to die. But to their surprise, Mr. Bugorski lived. The pathway that the particle entered and left Bugorski's brain was extremely small, meaning the amount of total radiation he experienced was minimal. Usually, it takes global exposure for radiation to be completely fatal.

So what does the rest of Bugorski's life look like?

Still Standing

A man behind a birthday cake with candles lit.

Good news: Bugorski is still alive today. Even several decades after the accident, he's still going strong and is married, in his 70s, and cancer free! Although it seemed to be extremely unlikely that he would survive the cruel incident, Bugorski beat the odds and showed radiation who's boss.

With exposure to radiation, there has to be some long-time risks, right?

Long-Term Risks

A triangle, yellow radiation symbol.

Even in small doses, moderate amounts of radiation can increase long-time risk. The radiation increases the risk of cells mutating, causing the cell to undergo a high amount of replication. This cell replication can turn into cancer, which is a risk we all want to avoid. But for Bugorski, he incredibly didn't experience this because his brain cells don't replicate. Talk about a miracle!


An old man looking off into the distance.

Long story short, please do not stick your head into a particle accelerator. After reading about Bugorski's experience, you might be shied away at the thought of doing so, and you'd be right to be. We all can't be as lucky as Bugorski, and the results could be a lot more grim if it were to happen again. Better yet, we advise you stay away from a particle accelerator completely if you're not a trained professional.

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