Sunday, August 24, 2014

Irradiation of face by LHC beam is better than Botox

Like other trained particle physicists, I have often been asked what would happen if you decided to insert your hand or head or another part of your body right to the LHC beam.

I wasn't sure about the right answer because it's a complicated interdisciplinary question combining particle physics, radiation safety, biology, and some condensed matter physics and thermodynamics. To be sure, I recommended people not to try this experiment because it would almost certainly be lethal.

These charts of Anatoli Bugorski's skull resemble the investigators' map of the JFK assassination scene.

Three weeks ago, Extreme Tech brought us a story that I didn't know and that may actually force us to change our minds. The experiment has already been tried 35 years ago and the guy is still around.

What happened?

In July 1978, Anatoli Petrovič Bugorski was trying to find a reason why their U-70 synchrotron accelerator with center-of-mass energy about 76 GeV did what the Soviet products were best at – it was malfunctioning – and it just happened that his head ended in the beams' path. The beam energies were 100 times lower than the 2012 LHC beams but still infinite relatively to the energy scales of chemistry so the difference between the LHC and U-70 shouldn't be qualitative (the instantaneous luminosity also has an impact, of course, but I can't tell you too many details about this dependence).

He is estimated to have received 200,000-300,000 rads of radiation (2-3 kJ/kg: 0.5-0.75 °C increase of water's temperature, if you convert it via the heat capacity), enough to make a hole through his tissues. OK, what happened. Has he be turned into an Iron Man, Superman, or Spiderman? Did he survive with an elegant hole through his head? Did he evaporate on the spot?

The first option, one involving the Iron Man, is closest to the truth. At that moment, he felt no pain but he has reported having seen a huge flash – like thousands of Suns and millions of Gods combined – and I guess that he saw these flashes without the help of the eyes. ;-) With beams that are this strong, your generic cells probably start to see light just like if they were cells on your eyes' retinas. But maybe it was just his retina that saw photons that originated in or were reflected from some intersections of his body and the beams.

A part of his head swelled insanely for some days but look what he looks like 36 years later:

He looks rather alive. In fact, the left half of his face has almost no wrinkles. It's because he was prevented from moving it – the muscles were paralyzed. (The reason why Stephen Hawking still looks so attractive and young is similar.) If you want to reduce the number of wrinkles, especially the new ones, you may try to visit the LHC and insert your head to the LHC beam – assuming that the Eurosoviet safety policies are as relaxed as the Soviet ones.

The dose would have been lethal if effectively absorbed by a huge percentage of your body cells. But the key to his survival was the localized character of the damage – only cells near the microscopic hole were killed (but really vigorously).

Some particle physicists indicate that instead of having used Botox, the U.S. secretary of state John Kerry used to expose his head to the proton and antiproton beams of the Tevatron in the Fermilab near Chicago, Illinois. Except for pointing out his irrational and amateurish decisions and speeches (whose cause may lie outside Fermilab, to be sure), I can't offer you any evidence in one way or another, however.

The beams may also produce a perfect union between you and your beloved one. As you can see, the LHC will have many applications even after it finds all the superpartners in 2015 or 2016.


  1. I think he was lucky that the beam was so narrow that no significant organ was hit. A fused artery would be like a stroke, for example.

    Particle physicists involved in the construction of accelerator where exposed to beams, as at the time the beams passed through the air, not in vacuum as the LHC beam. We used to say during shifts at the bubble chamber in the seventies that " a cat crossed the beam line" when we had trouble with the beams.

    I have heard that some physicists centered the beam on their detector by the Cerenkov light in their eye! Of course weak beams. One of them at least died of cancer of the retina.

  2. Wait, these beams require a vacuum, right? How could he hold his head inside a vacuum chamber?
    (I admit, I didn't follow the links to research that myself...)

  3. The human being is a finely structured organism whose life depends on his systems working together and so you want to avoid processes that could induce enough entropy into the structure to cause it to cease to work and to be unable to repair the vital structure. A black hole then is the most "death" possible. I think a record of you is maintained on the boundary but I don't quite understand this.

  4. A proton beam in an absorbing medium has a characteristic stopping distance where most of the energy is dissipated. Energy dissipation along the track is small in comparison. A well-confined (high luminosity) 76 GeV pencil lead proton beam is fairly benign until it stops, Perhaps his head was thinner than stopping dsitance.

    Compare GeV protons with being fried by a high amperage 25 MeV electron beam. That will punch a fried meat tunnel through you.

  5. Was the cat dead or alive????

  6. Extreme tech must have seen the discussion about this guy in your blog comments few months ago. It still shows up in a goggle search.

    Anatoli lost his hearing in his left ear. Otherwise he was fine and was able to finish his PhD.

    The LHC should do less damage as the beam is much more focused. Just don't move your head. Wana try it ????

  7. Ha ha. At the time there was not so much navel gazing on Schrodinger's cat and we made no conntection.

    Feral cats would take shelter during the cold winters in the long beam line buildings , I guess chasing the rats that did the same, and we saw them at times. The intensity for bubble chamber experiments was about 10/20 particles per beam so they would probably not even notice the beam.

  8. Physics needs an Einstein, bad. ;)

  9. It wouldn’t make too much difference for Dr. Bugorski if the energy of the beam that passed through his brain was 700 GeV instead of 70 GeV, as the increase in ionization energy loss varies only logarithmically with beam energy. See Figure 27.2 in the Particle Data Group’s discussion of energy loss in matter:

    That figure is for muons, but the dominant effects scale with gamma, so multiply by energy scale by m_muon/m_proton ~ 1/9. I emphasized “ionization” above because in going from 700 GeV to LHC energies of 7 TeV one starts to worry about radiative energy loss of the protons; see Figures 27.23 and 27.24 in the PDG reference, again for muons, but scaling by the factor of 9 it suggests that somewhere in the few TeV range (for protons) the radiative energy loss equals the ionization loss, so the energy deposited per unit length doubles. However, the radiative energy loss is not as tightly localized as the ionization loss, so messy things might happen to a large region of the brain. But far and away the largest effect would come from the relative intensities, not the the energies, of the U-70 beam versus the LHC beam. I haven’t looked these up but would be interested should the interested student be willing to investigate.

    And yes, in the case of the LHC the beam circulates in a vacuum, and other bad things would happen first from inserting your head into the vacuum. Nor is there an easy way to extract the LHC 7 GeV beam; a failed magnet would start the beam on a straight path out but I assume the energy deposited in the various magnets would cause a quench along with near-instantanous loss of stored beams. In the case of the U-70 it was a fixed target machine meaning the beam was designed to come out into a straight section, and it was sloppy but not uncommon practice to allow such extraction out of the beam pipe into the experimental area. Note that the ExtermeTech article is incorrect when it says that the “U-70 smashes two beams of protons together”, unless you want to exploit Lorentz invariance and boost into a frame moving with gamma of about 35 with respect to what we ordinarily call the laboratory ;-)

    I was not aware of Dr. Bugorski’s unfortunate accident, but it is the 20th century version of this 19th century demonstration of the brain’s remarkable resilience to grievous injury: .

  10. "Ok, what happened. Has he turned into an Iron Man, Superman or Spiderman?"
    Yes that is the first question to come to the mind o any well educated individual. But you have your superheros all wrong Lubos - he could have turned into Doctor Manhattan or The Hulk or one of the Fantastic Four. Although I grant you that Superman or Spiderman are possible options,