When two protons collide in an accelerator, they are transformed into muons and other particles. One Russian physicist offers this analogy: it's like two Soviet Fiats colliding to produce a bus and a Mercedes Benz 600. That's the thing about high-energy physics: the total is different than the sum of its parts.
So it was in 1978 that when the proton beam entered Anatoli Bugorski's skull it measured about 200,000 rads, and when it exited, having collided with the inside of his head, it weighed in at about 300,000 rads. Bugorski, a 36-year-old researcher at the Institute for High Energy Physics in Protvino, was checking a piece of accelerator equipment that had malfunctioned - as had, apparently, the several safety mechanisms. Leaning over the piece of equipment, Bugorski stuck his head in the space through which the beam passes on its way from one part of the accelerator tube to the next and saw a flash brighter than a thousand suns. He felt no pain.
From what we know about radiation, about 500 to 600 rads is enough to kill a person (though we don't know of anyone else who has been exposed to radiation in the form of a proton beam moving at about the speed of sound). The left side of his face swollen beyond recognition, Bugorski was taken to a clinic in Moscow so that doctors could observe his death over the following two to three weeks.
Over the next few days, skin on the back of his head and on his face just next to his left nostril peeled away to reveal the path the beam had burned through the skin, the skull, and the brain tissue. The inside of his head continued to burn away: all the nerves on the left were gone in two years, paralyzing that side of his face. Still, not only did Bugorski not die, but he remained a normally functioning human being, capable even of continuing in science. For the first dozen years, the only real evidence that something had gone neurologically awry were occasional petit mal seizures; over the last few years Bugorski has also had six grand mals. The dividing line of his life goes down the middle of his face: the right side has aged, while the left froze 19 years ago. When he concentrates, he wrinkles only half his forehead.
Because virtually everything connected with nuclear energy was kept secret in the Soviet Union, for more than a decade Bugorski observed an unspoken ban on talking about his accident. About twice a year he went to the Moscow radiation clinic to be examined and to commune with other members of the brotherhood of nuclear-accident victims. "Like former inmates, we are always aware of one another," he says. "There aren't that many of us, and we know one another's life stories. Generally, these are sad tales."