The story of a man whose head was pierced by a particle accelerator beam

If you ask physicists what happens if you put any part of your body in a particle accelerator, you will get the same answer over and over again: they don’t know. They may have a vague idea of ​​how this will affect your body, but there will be no clear answer. As with any radiation source, you are ultimately not advised to find out.

Except for the one who did figure it out. In the entire history of mankind, only one person has been hit by a beam from a particle accelerator. It has become the subject of intense study by medical researchers in their country due to its strange reaction to radiation. If this were a sci-fi fairy tale or the world of comics, then perhaps this man’s story would be fantastic, full of superpowers and heightened mental abilities, or an improved ability to see different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.

In the comic universe Keepers there is a character, physicist Jonathan Osterman, whose body, as a result of an experiment with “binding fields”, disintegrated into tiny particles, but he continued to exist outside of time and was able to reassemble his body, having regained almost divine superpowers and received the name Doctor Manhattan.

However, this story is not about superheroes and exciting mutations. But it also did not proceed as one might expect. Anatoly Bugorsky’s case study has both expected and unexpected elements.

The diagram and image show the interior of the Russian U-70 synchrotron
The diagram and image show the interior of the Russian U-70 synchrotron

Anatoly was a scientist in the late 1970s in the Soviet Union. The incident took place in mid-July at the U-70 synchrotron (this is a complex silvery installation, entangled in a snake-like ball of blue and red wires). At the time, it was the largest particle accelerator in the Soviet Union.

The purpose of these installations is to accelerate particle beams to extremely high speeds. Powerful magnetic fields are used to direct and focus these beams on the desired trajectory.

Inside the metal pipes, through which particles move, an almost perfect vacuum is maintained without air and dust. Such particle beams can be directed to collide with another particle beam or at a selected target such as a sheet of metal.

When such collisions occur, the instruments register the particles and the radiation generated during the collision. These instruments are undoubtedly one of the most intricate wonders of human engineering. With so many components, it’s not surprising that sometimes parts of the installation fail.

When the accident happened, Anatoly was checking some faulty equipment of the accelerator. The operators in the control room did not remove the beam, despite the fact that they knew that Anatoly was going to enter the cell to conduct an inspection.

The door to the cell was not locked, and the active beam warning sign was not lit. Therefore, he entered the room, bent over where the beam passed from one section of the accelerating tube to another, and was immediately struck by a beam of protons moving almost at the speed of light. At the moment of impact, there was a flash of light. Later Anatoly described that she was “brighter than a thousand suns.”

The diagram shows the path of the beam passing through Anatoly's head.
The diagram shows the path of the beam passing through Anatoly’s head.

The radiation dose of the particle beam at the entrance to Anatoly’s head was 200,000 roentgens. Due to the collisions of particles with Anatoly’s body, the measurement of the beam at the exit from the skull showed 300,000 rad.

Radiation at a level of 400 glad is capable of killing half of the people it touches. Radiation levels 1000 are glad and above will kill almost anyone. Anatoly received a dose of radiation 300 times higher than the lethal dose. Despite this, there was no pain.

As a particle physicist, Anatoly understood what had happened, although he was not sure of the seriousness of the situation. He pulled himself together, finished his work in the cell and went home without telling anyone about what had happened.

Only the next day, when alarming symptoms began to appear, he was taken to the hospital. The left side of his face was swollen and unrecognizable, the skin began to blister, and hair began to fall out where the bunch hit.

These effects were temporary and insignificant compared to what followed. All participants expected Anatoly to die. Doctors and nurses carefully monitored his treatment, although, most likely, no one expected him to survive – he was given no more than three weeks. And this is just the strangest part of the whole incident: Anatoly is not dead.

The left side of his face was permanently paralyzed and aging more slowly than the right. In addition, Anatoly was deaf in his left ear. Throughout his life, he has suffered several violent and repetitive minor seizures, during which his attention was impaired. He was also susceptible to developing cancer as a result of prolonged exposure to radiation. But still the fact remains: Anatoly did not die.

His mental faculties remained intact: he defended his doctoral dissertation and then worked on the site where this accident occurred. How could he survive the effects of radiation, which was 300 times the lethal level? This is one of the biggest mysteries in this case.

A possible explanation has emerged quite recently. We do not have all the information about Anatoly’s case, because as soon as he was hospitalized and he told the staff about what happened, all the main details related to the incident and treatment were immediately classified. However, we have some idea of ​​what might have happened.

Natural wrinkles and signs of aging are visible on one side of Anatoly's face, but not on the other.
Natural wrinkles and signs of aging are visible on one side of Anatoly’s face, but not on the other.

The radiation remained concentrated in his head and did not spread to the rest of the body, because the proton beam was quite narrow. This beam passed through Anatoly’s head along a path that avoided deterioration of his mental abilities or blindness.

The culmination of the proton beam path is known as Bragg’s peak. Bragg’s Peak is the point at which protons transfer most of their energy. It usually immediately precedes the end of the proton path. This characteristic is valuable for procedures such as proton therapy, where high energy beams are used to treat tumors and cancers. However, these are carefully calculated procedures.

During therapy, proton beams are directed along a very specific path so that their Bragg peak is used to destroy harmful cells in the human body. It is likely that the accelerator proton beam did not reach its Bragg peak in Anatoly’s head and therefore, fortunately, did not transfer most of its energy in Anatoly’s skull. The dose of radiation received by Anatoly was much less than it could have been if his head had a stopping ability to form Bragg’s peak.

Of course, these are only guesses. Unfortunately, studies on this topic are isolated cases, and it is difficult to draw any reliable conclusions based on such a limited amount of data.

Since the time of Anatoly Bugorsky, there has not been a single person who would have been hit in the head by the proton beam of the accelerator. It is true that he is one of the radiation survivors; but it is also true that no other person on earth has ever experienced the same. All this must be experienced on your own skin.

During a nuclear disaster or after a war, people may seek comfort in the fact that they are not the only ones. But what happens when a disaster only affects you? What happens when the war is in your head and you are the only one who survived? Anatoly said about this: “I’m being tested. They test a person’s ability to survive. “

In order to protect people as much as possible from such incidents, of course, it is necessary to very carefully think over both completely manual work processes and the underlying critical systems algorithms, exhaustively test these algorithms and ensure the resiliency of critical components and systems. Come to our courses, where experienced mentors and experts in their field will tell you about how to test softwareso that its reliability is comparable to that of critical engineering facilities.

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