Proton radiation is a rare beast indeed. Protons from the solar wind and cosmic rays are stopped by Earth’s atmosphere, and proton radiation is so rare in radioactive decay that it was not observed until 1970. More familiar threats, such as ultraviolet photons and alpha particles, do not penetrate the body past skin unless a radioactive source is ingested. Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko, for instance, was killed by alpha particles that do not so much as penetrate paper when he unknowingly ingested radioactive polonium-210 delivered by an assassin. But when Apollo astronauts protected by spacesuits were exposed to cosmic rays containing protons and even more exotic forms of radiation, they reported flashes of visual light, a harbinger of what would welcome Bugorski on the fateful day of his accident. According to an interview in Wired magazine in 1997, Bugorski immediately saw an intense flash of light but felt no pain. The young scientist was taken to a clinic in Moscow with half his face swollen, and doctors expected the worst.
Ionizing radiation particles such as protons wreak havoc on the body by breaking chemical bonds in DNA. This assault on a cell’s genetic programming can kill the cell, stop it from dividing, or induce a cancerous mutation. Cells that divide quickly, such as stem cells in bone marrow, suffer the most. Because blood cells are produced in bone marrow, for instance, many cases of radiation poisoning result in infection and anemia from losses of white blood cells and red blood cells, respectively. But unique to Bugorski’s case, radiation was concentrated along a narrow beam through the head, rather than being broadly distributed from nuclear fallout, as was the case for many victims of the Chernobyl disaster or the bombing of Hiroshima. For Bugorski, particularly vulnerable tissues, such as bone marrow and the gastrointestinal track, might have been largely spared. But where the beam shot through Bugorski’s head, it deposited an obscene amount of radiation energy, hundreds of times greater than a lethal dose by some estimates.
And yet, Bugorski is still alive today. Half his face is paralyzed, giving one hemisphere of his head a strangely young appearance. He is reported to be deaf in one ear. He suffered at least six generalized tonic-clonic seizures. Commonly known as grand mal seizures, these are the seizures most frequently depicted in film and television, involving convulsions and loss of consciousness. Bugorski’s epilepsy is likely a result of brain-tissue scarring left by the proton beam. It has also left him with petit mal or absence seizures, far less dramatic staring spells during which consciousness is briefly interrupted. There are no reports that Bugorski has ever been diagnosed with cancer, though that is often a long-term consequence of radiation exposure.
Despite having nothing less than a particle accelerator beam pass through his brain, Bugorski’s intellect remained intact, and he successfully completed his doctorate after the accident. Bugorski survived his accident. And as frightening and awesome as the inside of a particle accelerator might be, humanity has thus far survived the nuclear age
This piece appears courtesy of Aeon Magazine.