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. But before he knew what was happening, a charged proton stream struck his skull at around 670 million miles per hour. And with that single blinding flash, everything changed.
It might be said that nothing has arguably done more to advance humanity than science. Indeed, thanks to those working in the field, many people today enjoy never-before-seen levels of comfort and mobility. And in essence, 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, after all, also glean clear evidence. With this in mind, normal 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 extract information. Ultimately, the results of the collisions can help to prove or disprove theories concerning the mysteries of the universe.
Nowadays, the largest particle accelerator on the planet is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which incorporates a 16.7-mile loop that particles zoom around. It’s located below ground at depths of between 164 and 574 feet, straddling the Swiss-French border close to the city of Geneva. The circular 12-foot wide concrete tunnel took five years to build.
And in 2012 LHC experiments seemed to confirm the existence of the Higgs boson – a particle that has helped explain how others obtain mass. This discovery subsequently earned Nobel Prizes for two of the scientists concerned, Peter Higgs and Francois Englert, and their work could very well ultimately lead us to a better understanding of the universe.
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. Even today, the U-70 remains the most energetic synchrotron of its kind in Russia.
Now, if it’s been a while since you attended 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. Protons were once thought to be the smallest and final pieces of an atom, but they’re now known to each contain three even smaller particles called quarks.
Furthermore, a quark cannot be observed on its own but rather only when it’s a part of a composite particle called a hadron – hence the name of the Large Hadron Collider. And quarks are unique in that, as far as the Standard Model of particle physics goes, they – and no other – elementary particles are subjected to the four fundamental forces of strong interaction, weak interaction, electromagnetism and gravitation.
In addition, quarks come in six different varieties – top, bottom, up, down, charm and strange – that physicists call flavors, with each of these flavors possessing a corresponding antiquark. But before we’re overwhelmed by the complexities of these tiny particles, let’s return to the Soviet U-70 synchotron.
On July 13, 1978, the U-70 wasn’t functioning as it should. Research scientist Anatoli Bugorski happened to be working that day, though, 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.
In that single life-changing moment, the U-70 had fired a highly charged beam of protons straight through the scientist’s head. The experience was seemingly brief and painless, although Bugorski later reported having seen a burst of light. Yet the physical impact of receiving such a high-powered dose of proton radiation was, at that time, 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. It wasn’t until 1970 that scientists detected proton radiation in radioactive decay.
Proton radiation damages DNA, destroys cells and may even cause cancer. Its relative scarcity, therefore, is certainly a good thing for biological life. Such radiation can also disrupt the making of red and white blood cells in bone 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. This treatment has several advantages over other forms of radiotherapy because it can be specifically directed at particular tumors.
The beam that went through Bugorski’s head in 1978, however, 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 speaking, 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. Indeed, the doctors were basically waiting for him to die.
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.
But because the work Bugorski had been involved in was part of the Soviet nuclear program, it was unsurprisingly highly clandestine. After all, when the scientist had had his mishap, the Cold War was still under way – meaning anything to do with nuclear physics was not for public consumption.
In fact, it would be over a decade before anyone in the Western world heard about Bugorski’s extraordinary accident. And the Soviets were especially cagey about admitting to any blunders in their nuclear program – whether these concerned civil nuclear power or military weapons. The Chernobyl disaster was a good example of this secrecy.
Famously, in April 1986 a nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic went into meltdown. Then, in the immediate wake of the incident, the Soviet authorities attempted to play down its seriousness. In truth, though, it was – and remains to this day – the worst nuclear accident ever to have occurred.
Initially, the Soviets told the world that there had only been a small incident. The first admission that something had gone wrong, then, came in a Soviet television news announcement a whole two days after the calamity. And even at the time, the report was no more than cursory. It explained, “There has been an accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. One of the nuclear reactors was damaged. The effects of the accident are being remedied. Assistance has been provided for any affected people.”
Of course, this terse news bulletin was very far from revealing the truth of the matter. Nevertheless, the wholesale removal of 100,000 people from the area surrounding Chernobyl wasn’t something that the Soviets could entirely conceal. And it soon became obvious to observers around the world that this accident had been anything but minor.
So, given the attempted downplay of the Chernobyl disaster, it’s hardly a surprise that Bugorski’s 1978 accident at the Institute for High Energy Physics in Protvino wasn’t initially announced. Indeed, more than ten years would pass – until roughly the time when the Cold War ended – before the circumstances of the mishap became known to the world.
Miraculously, Bugorski’s exposure to the high-powered proton beam didn’t kill him. Indeed, he’s still alive today. You see, although the beam had subjected Bugorski to extremely high levels of radiation, its path had been incredibly thin and its aim precise. In fact, the radiation seemingly had no impact on any surrounding organs. Yes, 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. For another, the scientist’s hearing never returned properly to his left ear. This organ was also affected by tinnitus – a state in which the brain registers a noise for which there’s no external source.
But there’s also a strong indication that Bugorski may have suffered permanent brain damage. Be that as it may, Bugorski – as we’ve mentioned – is alive today and well into his 70s. What’s more, even if there is brain damage, it appears that the scientist’s intellectual abilities are unimpaired. For one thing, he went on to complete his Ph.D. after that massive dose of radiation.
Bugorski even continued his career as a nuclear scientist following the accident. It seems, in fact, that the only difference he noticed in his mental capabilities was that he tended to tire more quickly than he had before. However, along with the tinnitus that affected his hearing, the scientist would suffer other distressing physical symptoms.
For instance, 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.
To keep a check on how Bugorski’s health was progressing, then, doctors gave the scientist physical exams. These occurred for a period at a medical facility in Moscow on a couple of occasions each year. But perhaps the most incredible part of Bugorski’s brush with a proton beam is the fact that – as far as we know – he hasn’t yet developed cancer.
Still, over the years, Bugorski’s physical symptoms have gradually worsened. In the first 12 or so years after the accident, his epilepsy resulted in only mild fits; after that and up to 1997, however, he suffered six major grand mal seizures. Yet Bugorski is not exactly the only person to fall victim to a nuclear accident in the Soviet Union.
Indeed, in 1997 Bugorski spoke to Wired about the unfortunate kinship he shares with others who have been at the receiving end of nuclear injuries. “Like former inmates, we are always aware of one another,” he said. “There aren’t that many of us, and we know one another’s life stories. Generally, these are sad tales.”
And there’s been one decidedly peculiar side effect of that proton stream: in essence, it looks as though a line has been drawn down the center of Bugorski’s face. You see, while the side that escaped the effects of the beam has aged as normal, the one side that took the impact from the synchotron looks much as it did back in 1978.
Meanwhile, as Bugorski alluded to in his interview with Wired, there have been many others who have first-hand experience of nuclear science’s destructive potential. Some perished as the result of the Chernobyl disaster, while others succumbed to similarly tragic fates back in 1945. That year, the U.S. dropped two nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In fact, somewhere between 129,000 and 226,000 individuals died in those two cities as a result of the nuclear bombs dropped. About half of these fatalities occurred in the immediate aftermath of the blasts, while the rest died in the weeks and months afterwards – in large part due to the effects of radiation sickness.
And the effects of radiation exposure can also be seen in Bugorski, as he himself has pointed out. “This is, in effect, an unintended test of proton warfare,” he told Wired. “I am being tested. The human capacity for survival is being tested.” And Bugorski is not the first scientist to unwittingly experience the dangers of radioactivity, either.
Probably the best known of all scientists to make great sacrifice in the quest for knowledge about nuclear power is Marie Curie. Born in 1867 in Poland, Curie later took French citizenship. And in 1903 the pioneering scientist won the Nobel Prize for Physics for her groundbreaking work on radioactivity. A second Nobel – this time for chemistry – came in 1911.
Perhaps Curie’s main scientific achievement, though, was the finding of two radioactive elements: polonium and radium. Yet when she made her breakthroughs, no one was aware of the dangers posed by radioactivity. Indeed, bizarre as it may seem to us today, radioactive drinks and skin creams were marketed as beneficial to health during the first few decades of the 20th century.
And, tragically, the massive amount of exposure to radiation that Curie had subjected herself to proved consequential. During her work, you see, she had carried unshielded radioactive material in her pockets as well as keeping it in her desk. Perhaps owing to the effects of these practices, then, the blood disorder aplastic anemia killed Curie in 1934.
Meanwhile, although physicists may remember Bugorski for his years of scientific service, everyone else is more likely to know of him thanks to his accident with a particle accelerator. And 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.