Anatoli Bugorski: The Man Who Stuck His Head Inside a Particle Accelerator

Feb 14, 2020 0 comments

Out of all places to stick your head into, a particle accelerator would rank among the worst. Yet, on that fateful day of 13 July 1978, thirty-six-years-old Russian scientist Anatoli Bugorski just had to.

The particle accelerator he was working with at the Institute for High Energy Physics in Protvino, near Serpukhov, Russia, developed a problem. To see what’s wrong, Bugorski put his head inside the channel through which an intensely powerful beam of proton shoots through. Unknown to Bugorski, the accelerator was still running, and the warning lights that would have alerted Bugorski of the hazard had been switched off during a previous experiment, and had not been turned back on. As soon as his head crossed the invisible beam of proton, his brain was zapped. Bugorski felt no pain, but he reportedly saw a flash “brighter than a thousand suns.”

U-70 proton synchrotron at the Institute for High Energy Physics in Protvino

A section of the U-70 proton synchrotron at the Institute for High Energy Physics in Protvino. Photo: Sergey Velichkin/TASS

Bugorsky knew that he had struck the proton beam, but he did not tell anyone. Instead, he calmly completed his work, wrote down in a journal about his visit to the accelerator channel, and then waited for the symptoms to arrive with alarming foreboding. That night, the left side of his face began to swell and after an uncomfortable, sleepless night, Bugorsky decided to present himself to the doctors. Bugorsky was rushed to Moscow and admitted to a special clinic that treated victims of radiation poisoning.

Sources seem to disagree on exactly how much ionizing radiation Bugorski absorbed, but some say it was as high as 200,000 to 300,000 rads. No other human being had ever experienced such a focused beam of radiation at such high energy. Usually a dose of 400 to 1,000 rads is enough to kill a person. But Bugorski survived, because it was a focused beam. Unlike Chernobyl or Hiroshima where victims were bathed with high energy gamma rays from head to toe, Bugorski took the hit to a small area with minimal scattering. The beam had entered through the back of his head and exited through his nose. It burned a hole though his brain, destroying tissues and nerves and leaving one side of his face paralyzed, but his vital organs, such as bone marrow and the gastrointestinal track, were spared. Although the scaring on the back of his head and on his face healed with time, the left side of his face was left paralyzed, and he lost hearing on his left ear. Bugorski also began to have frequent episodes of seizures. But his intelligence remained as sharp as ever.

Anatoli Bugorski

Anatoli Bugorski’s swollen face after the accident. The figure on the right shows the path of the proton beam through his skull.

Bugorsky returned to work 18 months later, but promised to appear regularly in the Moscow clinic at least twice a year. Bugorski continued pursuing science, completed his PhD and held the post of coordinator of physics experiments at the U-70 proton synchrotron where the incident occurred. Because of the Soviet Union's policy of maintaining secrecy on nuclear power-related issues, Bugorski did not speak about the accident for over a decade. It was only after the Chernobyl disaster, his story came to light.

Anatoli Bugorski not only survived, he outlived the proton accelerator that maimed him. The breakup of the Soviet Union and the economic changes in the country dried up government funding, and the project was halted and eventually abandoned. Bugorski still lives in Protvino. He is a few months short of 78, at the time of this writing. He struggles to pay for his epilepsy medication, since the city cut budget to the institute and his former workplace. In 1996, he applied for disabled status but his application was rejected.

Anatoli Bugorski

Anatoli Bugorski. Photo: Andrey Solomonov/Global Look Press

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