What Happens If An Atom Flying At Almost The Speed Of Light Hits a person?

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Actually, it happens every 0.1 seconds. But not everything is so simple, it is necessary to understand what such atoms are, where they come from, what energy they have, and how they affect a person.

In fact, the speed of light for atoms is unattainable.

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A hydrogen atom, moving at a speed close to the speed of light through the earth’s atmosphere, loses its electron. Besides, when it collides with a person, it becomes a positive ion.

 An Atom Flying At Almost The Speed Of Light Hits a person
An Atom Flying At Almost The Speed Of Light Hits a person

Particles at such speeds achieve the so-called minimal ionization. This means that as their speed approaches the speed of light, the likely damage to cells from them becomes less.

The reason is that fast particles do not stay long in one place, so their effect on nearby electrons (which can cause ionization) is short-lived.

Protons, moving at a speed close to the speed of light, enter our atmosphere every second. Their likely source is distant supernova explosions.

Usually, they collide with other atoms on the way to the surface of the planet, forming secondary particles, pions, electrons, muons. Muons weigh about 15% of the weight of a proton, and they who most often interact with a person.

There is even an empirical rule according to which one muon passes through a person’s hand every second. Muons are often used to calibrate particle detectors (scintillation detectors and spark chambers).

A proton, or the nucleus of a hydrogen atom without an electron moving at 99.9% of the speed of light, has a total energy of about 210 GeV (gigaelectronvolts), which is about 220 times higher than the internal energy of a hydrogen atom at rest.

This is a large amount of energy by the standards of particle accelerators, but from the point of view of everyday experience, it is only 34 billion joules: a very tiny, inconspicuous amount of energy.

Therefore, for a person, even if an atom has an energy a thousand times greater, such an interaction goes unnoticed.

Russian physicist Anatoly Bugorsky
Russian physicist Anatoly Bugorsky

But in 1978, Russian physicist Anatoly Bugorsky stuck his head inside a Particle Accelerator and was hit not by one proton, but by millions, with an energy of 70 GeV. As a result, he received a number of injuries and an ultrahigh dose of radiation.

However, despite the incident, Bugorsky successfully continued his scientific activities.

Sometimes, a proton passing through a person collides with atomic nuclei, splitting them and producing secondary particles. But the radiation damage from this is much less than from the natural radioactive decay of potassium-40 and carbon-14. And even those ones are insignificant.

In a collision with living cells, free radicals may occur, causing unplanned reactions. Denaturation of some proteins is likely, but the body processes them.

Moreover, it can lead to errors in the replication of some DNA. Most errors will come from junk DNA that does not encode a protein sequence. If a serious problem arises, the body will intervene.

Isolated cases of collisions with very fast atoms are not dangerous, but the constant exposure to a large flux of such particles can lead to great troubles.

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