What Happens If You Fall into a Particle Accelerator? | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Dylan Musselman
The Large Hadron Collider at CERN is the single biggest machine ever made. It's responsible for some of the most important scientific breakthroughs of the 21st century. And it's crucial for studies into dark energy, dark matter and the true nature of the universe. BUT, if anything ever goes wrong, then it could be very dangerous! In this video, Unveiled finds out what would happen if you fell into a particle accelerator...

What Happens If You Fall into a Particle Accelerator?

Nowadays, particle accelerators are essential tools for scientists and physicists. Ever since the first one was built in the 1930s, a number of important and even ground-breaking discoveries have been made because of them. But, for all their scientific promise, these massive machines could also potentially be incredibly dangerous...

This is Unveiled and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; What if you fell into a particle accelerator?

To understand the potential damage they could cause, we first have to understand how these machines actually work. Particle accelerators are able to propel charged particles, which are invisible to the naked eye, at speeds approaching the speed of light. These minute particles are then smashed into each other (or into a different kind of target) basically to see what happens. Accelerators are able to reach such huge speeds and achieve such mind-bending accuracy because of the way the researchers operating them use and manipulate electromagnetic fields - tweaking systems and set-ups so precisely that even the most impossibly small alteration can yield radically different results. The Large Hadron Collider (or the LHC) is the largest particle accelerator on earth, and in fact the largest machine ever built by humans. It lies beneath the border between France and Switzerland and is 27 kilometres long.

So, we’ve got what looks like a massive tunnel filled with tiny particles firing into each other. That’s cool, but what’s the point? Well, for one, particle accelerators enable us to see and record the other particles that are birthed from these high-speed collisions. As Einstein’s famous equation E=MC2 allows, the high energy in these things transforms into matter upon impact - and often this “new” matter takes an unexpected (or even unprecedented) shape. As they break down even comparatively “larger” particles (like protons) into smaller pieces (like quarks), ground-breaking discoveries of things like the Higgs Boson or the Top Quark were only possible thanks to accelerators. Measuring these types of particles allows scientists to better understand the world at the quantum level and to better grasp the workings and origins of our universe.

Matter itself isn’t really what we should be worried about when contemplating falling into an accelerator, though, as there’s actually very little matter inside them. The primary danger lies in the amount of energy that a particle accelerator produces. The beam they create is concentrated into an extremely narrow line, and that’s the danger-zone. If that beam were to for whatever reason pass through you it could have devastating consequences. The beam would leave a trail of dead tissue through whatever part of your body it passed, and there’s even a chance that a powerful enough accelerator could drill straight through your bones and muscles, leaving a thin, potentially life threatening and likely very painful cavity in your body. Depending on where you’re hit, there’s risk of rupture or damage to your spine, brain, or all the major organs in your abdomen.

Regardless of where the beam specifically strikes, fall into a working particle accelerator and you’ll also likely suffer some form of radiation poisoning. The side effects of this would be similar to the side effects felt by anyone suffering a similar fate after extreme events like the Chernobyl disaster. You’d begin by feeling nauseous and having headaches; severe stomach complaints could then lead to seizures and, in the worst cases, the experience could place you into a coma.

The effects of the accelerator on your body might not be all that visible at first, but you’d quickly develop a form of “burn” via noticeable skin damage, itching, redness and seemingly random cuts starting to appear. Were you to be held or trapped in the accelerator for a longer period of time, your hair would start to fall out, you’d be at risk of severe internal bleeding, bone marrow decay, and eventually death. That’s not to say that falling into a particle accelerator automatically means you will die, only that there’d be a very real threat of your being exposed to very dangerous levels of radiation poisoning - something that you’d much less likely experience had you managed to stay on the outside of the accelerator.

In the public eye, though particle accelerators are still a relative unknown, they are forever linked with one thing: the making of black holes. While much of the hubbub surrounding supposed attempts to create an artificial singularity is wildly over-exaggerated, were a whole human body to fall into an accelerator (or, even worse, were two bodies to fall in) then all bets are off on exactly what would happen… perhaps we could very briefly see one appear… maybe.

The difference between one and two people inside an accelerator is key, here. Say you fell into the particle beam and your friend or colleague’s instant reaction was to jump in after you, to try to save you. Well, that act of heroism could actually prove disastrous, if the beam then passed through the both of you, one after the other… Now, the once narrow beam would expand in size as it passes through the first person, coming out the other side in more of a cone shape, and hitting the second person with a much wider surface area. This means that the even more unfortunate second person (comparatively speaking) suffers all of the damage - the tissue damage, cell damage and radiation poisoning - all across their body in an instant, instead of at just the location that the original, unaltered beam would’ve struck. Under these circumstances, with so many never-before-seen interactions going on inside the accelerator at the same time, it’d be impossible to predict what would happen next - leading some to speculate over the potential for micro-black hole formation.

The prospect of just one person falling into a particle accelerator isn’t quite so hypothetical, though… and we already know that it wouldn’t birth a black hole, because there actually is one known case of it happening. The Russian scientist Anatoli Bugorski is the only living person to know what the experience feels like first-hand. In 1978, he was working inside the Soviet particle accelerator, the “U-70 Synchrotron”, when a safety mechanism malfunctioned, and a beam of energy passed through the back of his skull and out the front of his nose. Although he says he felt no pain, Bugorski did describe seeing a light that he described as “brighter than 1,000 suns”. In his case, the beam caused Bugorski’s skin to peel and his hair to fall out; he lost his hearing in his left ear and developed tinnitus; he suffered swelling and then paralysis on the left side of his face, experienced recurrent seizures, and the beam burned a hole through his skull and killed all of the brain tissue that it passed through. Luckily enough, though, it didn’t hit any major areas like the frontal lobe or the hippocampus - so the consequences weren’t quite as severe as they might’ve been… and, despite all of those problems, Bugorski survived to live a long life.

The accelerator that Bugorski fell into, though, held a beam that was much less powerful than the one that the Large Hadron Collider houses today. So, what happens if someone falls into the LHC? It’s hard to say, and hopefully we never find out, but it makes sense that the concerns and injuries would drastically worsen - to the point where they could be un-survivable! Whether through the sheer impact of a particle beam that size passing through you, or because of the immense radiation dosage it would leave you with, the human body simply isn’t built to withstand it. And that’s what would happen if you fell into a particle accelerator.