The Man Who Survived A Proton Beam To The Brain

Daven Hiskey runs the wildly popular interesting fact website Today I Found Out. To subscribe to his “Daily Knowledge” newsletter, click here.

On July 13, 1978, Russian scientist Anatoli Petrovich Bugorski became the only person to ever stick his head in a running particle accelerator. A researcher at the Institute for High Energy Physics in Protvino, Bugorski was checking a malfunctioning piece of equipment on the Soviet particle accelerator, Synchrotron U-70, when he accidentally put his head directly in the path of the machine's proton beam. He reported seeing a flash that was “brighter than a thousand suns,” but did not feel any pain when this happened.

The beam itself measured 2000 gray as it entered Bugorski’s skull and about 3000 gray when it exited on the other side. A “gray” is an SI unit of energy absorbed from ionizing radiation. One gray is equal to the absorption of one joule of radiation energy by one kilogram of matter. Absorption of over 5 grays at any time usually leads to death within 14 days. However, no one before had ever experienced radiation in the form of a proton beam moving at nearly the speed of light.

The Effects

The beam entered the back of Bugorski’s head and came out around his nose. Shortly after this happened, the left half of Bugorski’s face swelled up. He was taken to the hospital and closely monitored; doctors and other scientists fully expected him to die within a few days.

But that didn't happen: Although the beam had burned through his skull and brain tissue and caused the skin in the areas it touched to peel off, Bugorski survived and actually came through it all surprisingly well—his intellectual capacity remained the same as before. The few negative health drawbacks he did experience were not life threatening either: He lost the hearing in his left ear, but experienced a constant unpleasant noise in that ear from then on. The left half of his face slowly became paralyzed over the course of the next two years. He also gets significantly more fatigued with mental work, though he did go on to get his PhD after this incident. The remaining side effects were occasional absence seizures and later tonic-clonic seizures, though these didn’t show up right away.

The most bizarre side effect that occurred has to do with his face. Looking at Bugorski now, you’d see the right half of his face looks like a normal wrinkled old man, but the left half of his face looks as if it was frozen in time decades ago. Apparently Botox has got nothing on a particle accelerator’s proton beam for stopping wrinkles.

Check out more interesting articles from Daven over at Today I Found Out and subscribe to his Daily Knowledge newsletter here.

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Medicine
Charles Dickens Museum Highlights the Author's Contributions to Science and Medicine

Charles Dickens is celebrated for his verbose prose and memorable opening lines, but lesser known are his contributions to science—particularly the field of medicine.

A new exhibition at London’s Charles Dickens Museum—titled "Charles Dickens: Man of Science"—is showcasing the English author’s scientific side. In several instances, the writer's detailed descriptions of medical conditions predated and sometimes even inspired the discovery of several diseases, The Guardian reports.

In his novel Dombey and Son, the character of Mrs. Skewton was paralyzed on her right side and unable to speak. Dickens was the first person to document this inexplicable condition, and a scientist later discovered that one side of the brain was largely responsible for speech production. "Fat boy" Joe, a character in The Pickwick Papers who snored loudly while sleeping, later lent his namesake to Pickwickian Syndrome, otherwise known as obesity hypoventilation syndrome.

A figurine of Fat Boy Joe
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Dickens also wrote eloquently about the symptoms of tuberculosis and dyslexia, and some of his passages were used to teach diagnosis to students of medicine.

“Dickens is an unbelievably acute observer of human behaviors,” museum curator Frankie Kubicki told The Guardian. “He captures these behaviors so perfectly that his descriptions can be used to build relationships between symptoms and disease.”

Dickens was also chummy with some of the leading scientists of his day, including Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin, and chemist Jane Marcet, and the exhibition showcases some of the writer's correspondence with these notable figures. Beyond medicine, Dickens also contributed to the fields of chemistry, geology, and environmental science.

Less scientifically sound was the author’s affinity for mesmerism, a form of hypnotism introduced in the 1770s as a method of controlling “animal magnetism,” a magnetic fluid which proponents of the practice believed flowed through all people. Dickens studied the methods of mesmerism and was so convinced by his powers that he later wrote, “I have the perfect conviction that I could magnetize a frying-pan.” A playbill of Animal Magnetism, an 1857 production that Dickens starred in, is also part of the exhibit.

A play script from Animal Magnetism
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Located at 48-49 Doughty Street in London, the exhibition will be on display until November 11, 2018.

[h/t The Guardian]

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NASA // Public Domain
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History
On This Day in 1983, Sally Ride Made History
NASA // Public Domain
NASA // Public Domain

Thirty-five years ago today, on June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. She flew on the space shuttle Challenger on a six-day mission. She had previously helped build the shuttle's robot arm, and now she operated it in space. Not only was she the first American woman to go to space, she was the youngest astronaut in space, at age 32.

(As with many space-related firsts, that "American" qualifier is important. The Soviet space program had sent two women cosmonauts into space well in advance of Ride. Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova flew all the way back in 1963, and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982. They also sent various younger people to space, including Tereshkova.)

Ride represented a change in the previously completely male astronaut program. Although NASA had unofficially tested women in the late 1950s as part of the Mercury program, the idea of sending women into space was quickly discarded. NASA policy for decades was that only men would be considered as astronauts. It took until 1978 for NASA to change the policy—that year, six women became astronauts: Sally Ride, Judith Resnik, Kathryn Sullivan, Anna Fisher, Margaret Rhea Seddon, and Shannon Lucid.

Ride and her colleagues were subject to an endless barrage of sexist media questions, curious how women might fare in space. They also encountered institutional sexism at NASA itself. Ride recalled:

"The engineers at NASA, in their infinite wisdom, decided that women astronauts would want makeup—so they designed a makeup kit. A makeup kit brought to you by NASA engineers. ... You can just imagine the discussions amongst the predominantly male engineers about what should go in a makeup kit."

Ride held a Ph.D. in astrophysics, two bachelor's degrees (English and physics), and had served as CapCom (Capsule Communicator) for the second and third shuttle flights, STS-2 and -3. She was an accomplished pilot and athlete, as well as a Presbyterian elder. She was closely connected to Challenger, performing two missions on it and losing four fellow members of her 1978 class when it exploded.

After her astronaut career concluded, Ride served on both the Challenger and Columbia disaster review panels. During the former, she leaked vital information about the Challenger disaster (o-ring engineering reports), though this wasn't broadly known until after her death. She wrote educational books and founded Sally Ride Science. She was asked to head up NASA by the Clinton administration, but declined.

Ride died in 2012 from pancreatic cancer. Her obituary made news for quietly mentioning that she was survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O'Shaughnessy. Although Ride had come out to her family and close friends, the obituary was the first public statement that she was gay. It was also the first time most people found out she'd suffered from pancreatic cancer at all; she asked that donations in her memory be made to a fund devoted to studying that form of cancer.

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