In 1978, a Russian research scientist by the name of Anatoli Bugorski was having a bad day. It turns out that the U-70 synchrotron particle accelerator that cost lots of money to build was malfunctioning. So, he stuck his head in to do a little inspection. And that’s when the device activated without so much as a warning and propelled particles into him.
But what happened next was truly unbelievable. The resulting beam of light surprised him and left him with some strange side effects that most people will never experience in their lifetime. And this incident from the 1970s wasn't the only one of its kind.
He Believed in Science
Like most scientists, Anatoli Bugorski always believed that science could be used to change the course of human history. And it’s hard to dispute those beliefs given everything that science has done for humanity over the past couple of decades.
Science Has Benefited Humanity
Thanks to science, humanity has been able to harness huge amounts of energy to propel rockets into outer space. It has also been used to cure diseases and expand the human life span. And where would people be without cell phones and laptops? But many discoveries come from trial and error, which can sometimes put human lives at risk.
Trial and Error are Parts of Science
To achieve a scientific breakthrough, scientists must first conduct experiments, many of which fail multiple times before success is achieved. Unfortunately, accidents do happen in the name of science, and that’s something Bugorski learned the hard way.
The First Particle Accelerator
The first particle accelerators were invented in the 1930s so scientists could study how matter was structured in more detail. To do this, the machine used magnetism to accelerate particles at a higher rate than normal so they could be observed.
Particles Move Near the Speed of Light
The accelerated particles are pushed close to the speed of light and leave something behind as they crash. Then scientists collect the information and use it to get a better understanding of the universe. Over the years, this technology has continued to advance by leaps and bounds.
The World’s Largest Particle Accelerator
The biggest particle accelerator of its kind so far is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) bordering Switzerland and France, which contains a 16.7-mile loop that particles fly through. But scientists knew they had to play it safe as this technology has always been unpredictable.
The LHC is Under Ground
The LHC is located between 164 feet and 574 feet under Geneva. It took more than five years to build the wide concrete tunnel to house the collider that’s 12-foot wide. This tunnel is intended to act as a protective barrier for the facility and the nearby area.
The LHC Makes Particles Easier to Understand
At the LHC, researchers Peter Higgs and Francois Englert made important discoveries, like a particle called Higgs Boson, which helped them to figure out how other particles gain mass. This has been vital in helping scientists get closer to a possible answer on how the universe was created.
Protons Are Not the Last Elements of an Atom
A particle accelerator increases the speed of an atom’s positively charged subatomic particles or protons. With the help of machines like the LHC, scientists have learned that atoms have three small elements known as quarks.
Quarks are the Only Reactive Particles
Quarks are only detectable when they are part of a complex particle known as a hadron. Over time, scientists learned that quarks are the only elementary particles that react to things like electromagnetism and gravitation.
There Are Six Different Types of Quarks
The concept of physics is very complex for anyone who isn’t a scientist. For example, most people don’t know that there are six different types of quarks known as flavors that are identified as charm, top, bottom, up, down, and strange. These flavors also have their own antiquarks. But it’s important to point out that the Soviets were on the path to making such discoveries long before the LHC was built.
The Soviets Built a Powerful Particle Accelerator
In the 1970s, the Soviet Union was the one in charge of studying particle physics. As a matter of fact, the 1967 U-70 synchrotron collider was built by the Soviets and was considered the most sophisticated particle accelerator of its time.
It’s No Longer the Most Powerful
Although the U-70 no longer has the distinct honor of being the most powerful particle accelerator on the planet, it does remain the most powerful one in Russia. But what would possess a scientist to stick their head inside one of these contraptions?
He Stuck His Head in the Particle Accelerator
On July 13, 1978, a research scientist named Anatoli Bugorski had noticed that the U-70 synchrotron was malfunctioning and he started to diagnose the problem. One of the ways he went about doing this was by sticking his head inside the U-70 machine. It was an action that he would later come to regret.
A Proton Beam Fired
At the moment Bugorski stuck his head in the machine, the particle accelerator activated and produced a proton beam that went right towards him. He had no idea what was about to happen and he didn’t have time to stick his head out of the machine.
He Got Hit in the Head
The super charged proton beam went through his head. Bugorski saw a flash of light, but the experience was both short and painless. And fortunately, it didn’t kill him instantly, but there were some noticeable side effects.
Doctors Were in Uncharted Territory
No one knew what kind of side effects Bugorski was going to experience from the high dose of proton radiation he had received. As far as anyone knew, no one had ever experienced this before because proton radiation is far more common in outer space.
The Sun Produces Proton Radiation
Solar winds radiate in the form of proton particle beams. This type of proton radiation is common in outer space, too. Fortunately, the Earth’s atmosphere has its own radiation shield that protects organic beings from its devastating effects.
Proton Radiation is Deadly
In 1970, scientists learned that proton radiation was prevalent in radioactive material. More importantly, they discovered that proton radiation kills cells, warps DNA and leads to cancer. So, in large doses, proton radiation is fatal.
The Secondary Side Effects of Proton Radiation
Proton radiation also has the power to prevent the human body from creating red blood cells and white blood cells. This leaves the body vulnerable to all sorts of infections that it can't fight. But proton radiation does have some medical benefits.
There’s a Positive Side to Proton Beams
Proton beams have been used to specifically target cancerous tumors as opposed to radiating the entire body with chemo therapy. However, there’s only so much proton radiation that a human body can withstand, and that’s something that Bugorski learned firsthand.
Bugorski’s Radiation Level Was at 76 Billion
The proton beam that pierced Bugorski’s head in 1978 was highly concentrated and far more powerful than the therapy used in cancer treatment. To put it simply, he was hit with radiation levels of about 76 billion as opposed to the level of 250 million used in conventional treatments.
Radiation Levels are Measured in Grays
Grays is the term used to measure the radiation level of a proton beam. In general, any exposure that goes over five grays can lead to death. What hit Bugorski was a beam with approximately 2,000 to 3,000 grays.
He Was Admitted to a Clinic for Observation
No one had any idea how badly the radiation was going to affect Bugorski’s body. So, they rushed him to a Moscow clinic and admitted him there for observation. But the doctors feared for the research scientist’s health.
The Beam Cut Into His Head
The beam had entered the back of his skull and exited through one of his nostrils. Along the way, it irradiated his head. So, doctors felt that it was only a matter of time before he passed away.
The Symptoms Started to Manifest
One of the first symptoms Bugorski experienced was swelling on his face. But that’s not all. The skin where the beam had entered and exited began to peel. He had also lost his hearing in one ear. Unfortunately, no one in the outside world knew what was happening to him.
It Was a Soviet Secret
At the time, the particle accelerator and the work Bugorski was doing were all part of the Soviet nuclear program, which had to be kept a secret because it was during the Cold War. But there was another reason the Russians were so secretive about the whole incident.
The Soviets Didn’t Like Owning Up to Their Nuclear Mistakes
It took over ten years for anyone to really know what had happened to Bugorski because the Soviets weren’t prone to divulging information about their nuclear program, especially when mistakes were made. This was painfully obvious during one of the more horrific nuclear disasters in Russian history.
The Day Chernobyl Had a Meltdown
In 1986, the nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant had a meltdown. This released high levels of radiation into the air. But when it initially happened, the Soviet government made it seem like it wasn’t a big deal.
The Initial Reports Were a Lie
The Soviets went public with the news two days after the explosion. It came in the form of the following report: “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.”
Thousands of People Were Evacuated
While their attempts to hide the truth from foreign powers initially worked, the Soviets had no choice but to evacuate 100,000 people from their homes. Unfortunately for the Russian government, this quickly caught the attention of other countries.
Rumors Persisted for Years
Rumors began to spread throughout the world about what really happened in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and how it had affected those in its vicinity, particularly the people working in the plant during the meltdown. But it would take years before anyone got clear answers about the horrible accident.
Soviets Had Experience Hiding Secrets
Given that the Soviets had done everything in their power to deny what had happened in Chernobyl, it’s no surprise that what happened to Bugorski at the Institute for High Energy Physics was kept under wraps for so long, and it took a decade before the truth started to come out.
It Took Ten Years to Learn the Truth
The Russian government finally spoke about what had happened to Bugorski just as the Cold War was finally ending. Before that, no one even knew about him or the personal hardships he had to suffer through all those years ago. But did he survive?
The Beam Was Very Thin
Although Bugorski was exposed to radiation, the beam’s path was thin and caused very little physical damage to his head. So, he was able to survive his ordeal. But were there any long-term side effects?
His Blood Cell Count Was Okay
After extensive testing, medical specialists determined that his bone marrow was unaffected by the radiation. This meant that his red and white blood cell counts were not compromised and neither was his immunity. But he wasn’t entirely unscathed.
He Suffered Nerve Damage
Bugorski suffered severe nerve damage on the left side of his face that prevented him from moving it, and that wasn’t all. He also went deaf in his left ear and never regained his hearing in that ear. But to add insult to injury, he suffered from tinnitus, which meant that he experienced ringing in one ear that wasn’t caused by any external sound.
He Had Possible Brain Damage
As thin as the proton beam had been, it still pierced his brain, which meant that he withstood some kind of brain damage after the accident. This, however, did not affect the great intelligence that still existed within his head.
He’s Still Alive and Kicking
As of 2021, Bugorski is 78 years old and still kicking. And whatever piece of brain the beam took from him, it didn’t keep him from continuing to educate himself. He even got himself a Ph.D. all on his own merit after the incident, but that’s not all.
He Has a Family
His encounter with the proton beam didn’t affect his ability to continue being a wonderful husband to his wife Vera Nikolaevna, or a great dad to his son, Peter Bugorski. But while his experience didn’t prevent him from living a full life, there were other lingering effects.
Some Symptoms Showed Up Afterwards
Once Bugorski recovered, he did what any good scientist would do and went back to work. But he did experience some side effects from the incident such as becoming extremely tired during the day. But that still wasn’t the worst of it.
He Experienced Terrible Seizures
Over the years, he experienced what are known as grand mal seizures or tonic-clonic seizures which are caused by unstable electrical impulses in the brain. These symptoms are often common in people with epilepsy, but in Bugorski’s case, the seizures were the result of the proton beam.
He Never Developed Cancer
In a lot of cases, people exposed to radiation develop cancer down the line. But doctors continued to monitor him over the years, and fortunately, he never got the Big C. Unfortunately, his seizures were still a nightmare.
His Seizures Were Minor At First
During the first 12 years since the incident, Bugorski’s seizures were mild. But those were only signs of bigger things to come. As time went on the seizures went from minor to major and it affected him more and more each time he experienced one.
He Suffered Six Grand Mal Seizures
Eventually, Bugorski suffered his first grand mal seizure, which was followed by five more grand mal seizures. Sadly, each episode took a toll on him physically and mentally, but he wasn’t the only one who dealt with these symptoms.
He Connected With Other Nuclear Victims
While talking to Wired in 1997, Bugorski shared how he felt connected with others who had also encountered similar health complications resulting from nuclear accidents. “Like former inmates, we are always aware of one another,” he said.
The Victims Share the Same Sad Tales
“There aren’t that many of us, and we know one another’s life stories. Generally, these are sad tales,” he continued sharing with Wired. But he admitted that it was rare to hear cases like his where someone was exposed to this much radiation and continued to survive.
Bugorski Became Two-Faced
The research scientist didn’t become two-faced in the conventional sense, but the beam did sort of draw a line across half his face. And although no one can see the line, he could feel the difference as one side of his face was perfectly normal and the other was completely paralyzed.
He Went On With His Life
Thousands of people have died before their time because of radiation poisoning or cancer-related radiation. But with the exception of the long-term health effects, Bugorski managed to continue working and enjoying life with his family.