Today’s helpful life tip

Try not to stick your head in a particle accelerator. It won’t end well for you.

This post started when Pythonguy and I (grammar!) were having a conversation about what Livermorium might taste like. Livermorium, if you don’t know, is a synthetic chemical element – number 117. It is so radioactive, it has never even been photographed – it decays into something else so quickly that we can only really detect it from the products it generates. Given the short life of Livermorium, we figured the only way to even get some into your mouth would be to stick your head in a particle accelerator, stick some highly radioactive lump in your mouth and bombard it until it turns into Livermorium. Which is probably a bad idea. But it got me wondering – what would happen to you if you were to stick your head into the LHC and turn it on? I am by no means an authority on this subject, but I am a certified expert at Googling (me and the rest of the internet) and thus will do my best to answer the question – what would happen to you if you stuck your head in the LHC and turned it on?

Although before I do that, I want to say something about extremely fast moving things. I have done a post before about what happens as you approach light speed. Time goes funny, it gets harder and harder to accelerate and so on. When you accelerate subatomic particles to relativistic speeds (= get small things to go fast), all that happens and then some. When small things get to high speeds, they start to display quantum effects even more so than usual. Protons in the LHC have a bad habit of occasionally passing through walls, radiation shields and other solid objects. This means that any calculation where you have to measure how hard protons ‘hit’ things, you need to basically assume that they can teleport. Understandably, this makes calculations tricky almost impossible. So for sake of time, readability and common sense, I’m going to assume that relativistic protons obey ‘normal’ physics, the same as tennis balls do. If you happen to be a particle physicist and can correct these calculations, please feel free to do so and leave the results in a comment.

Things that would hurt you when you stuck your head into a particle accelerator:

  1. The protonsProtons are really small. But protons in the LHC are moving really fast – 99.9999991% of the speed of light. And at that speed, protons can pack a surprising amount of punch. The energy delivered from one proton is about 7 TeV. Which sounds like a lot of energy, right? It’s actually 0.000006 J of energy. Not a lot. But there are a lot of protons. There’s actually 322920000000000 protons on the LHC at any one time. And they take about 90 microseconds to go round. So if you run the numbers (3.2×10^14 times 7 TeV times one second) you do get quite a big number.Assuming every single particle interacted with your head (which it probably wouldn’t, due to both quantum effects and special relativity – but the maths that is needed to account for that is way beyond my level, so I’m assuming that they all interact), the proton stream delivers about 4,024,026,660,000 watts to your face. That’s also roughly what you would get it you took 20000 aircraft carriers, hooked all their nuclear reactors up to one set of wires and stuck one in each ear. Needless to say, it doesn’t end well for you.
  2. The magnetsThe magnets inside the LHC are pretty big. They emit about 8 Teslas of magnetism each, which isn’t a massive amount – it’s about the same as in a large MRI scanner. The difference is that there are a lot of them. There are 1600 magnets in the LHC, providing a total of 12800 Teslas in total. There has never been a proven effect of magnetism on the human body – in theory, with enough magnets you could levitate a human but there is no proof of any harm caused.Although, there is some evidence that large magnetic fields, if aligned in a certain way, can affect brain performance on certain tasks. Again, this is entirely unproven. But I will still say that putting your brain in the way of 12kT of magnetism probably isn’t a particularly good idea.
  3. The radiation Unsurprisingly, the Large Hadron Collider is quite radioactive. This comes of having several quadrillion protons rocketing round it every second. Some of them manage to escape the beam and the magnets holding them in place and smack into the walls of the tunnel, irradiating it. The amount of radiation is hard to calculate (according to the CERN website) because the amount of leakage and the effect it will have is pretty random.However, CERN does declare several levels of radiation zone in the LHC. They have radiation levels that vary from just a few milliSieverts of radiation to several hundred per hour. That isn’t actually enough to kill you quickly; you’d have to hang around in the highest level of zone for almost two days. And over that time, you’d be exposed to several quadrillion Joules of energy from the proton beam. But the level of radiation is certainly a notable factor.

Now, so far, this entire post has been apocryphal. It’s based on guesswork and slightly sketchy physics. But halfway through this, I found some precedent for this. Enter Anatoli Petrovich Bugorski.

In 1978, Anatoli was doing his PhD at the biggest particle accelerator in Russia at the time, the U-70 Synchrotron in Protvino when a piece of equipment failed. He turned on the safety mechanism and leaned into the accelerator so he could see what the problem was. At that point, the safety mechanism failed. He was struck in the head with a proton beam and allegedly saw a flash “brighter than a thousand suns” but apparently didn’t feel any pain. The Soviets decided he was probably going to die of radiation poisoning and sent him a radiation clinic in Moscow.

But then he didn’t die. His face swelled up massively and then a lot of his skin peeled of, half of his face became paraylsed by the destruction of his nerves and then he started having seizures.

But he survived. He is still alive, and finished his PhD, and apparently has no reduction in mental capacity. So who knows, really?

Anatoli Bugorski was pretty much fine from his encounter with a particle accelerator beam. But then the LHC is several dozen times more powerful than the U-70. And given the randomness of proton beams, there’s really no way to tell what would happen.

So I guess, we should just stick a load of people in front of particle accelerators to see what happens?


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