Gunslinging Bohr

bohr_einsteinThis story has come along at just the right time, given that my last post was about Einstein. Seems that Niels Bohr (another giant from the same period, and another one of the founders of the quantum theory) was a big fan of cowboy movies, and thought a lot about gunfights. Yes, really! (There he is in the photo on the left hanging out with his friend Einstein in later years, perhaps 1925. Perhaps they’re at a drive-in movie? I got this photo here.)

It turns out to be all relevant to new studies about reaction time. The fastest person to draw does not necessarily win the gunfight:

Inspired by Hollywood cowboy movies, Nobel Laureate atomic physicist Niels Bohr once conjectured why, during a duel, the gunslinger who drew first was the one to get shot — the intentional act of drawing and shooting is slower to carry out than the “quick draw” response to another gun. Anecdotal reports note that Bohr tested his idea using toy pistols, with the reactive Bohr apparently winning every duel against his colleague George Gamow.

You can read more in this story by Charles Q. Chio here, from which I quoted the above.

In the BBC story on the Today programme by Tom Feilden , you can learn more and see some demos, introduced by Professor Andrew Welchman, one of the researchers involved in the new study of the matter. The article ends by mentioning that Bohr was in fact well known for his gunslinging prowess. Apparently this was written about him:

On pistols and lead, now Bohr had to prove
The defendant is quickest to move.
Bohr accepted the challenge without a frown
He drew when we drew, and shot each one of us down.
This tale has a moral, tho’ we knew it before.
It’s foolish to question the wisdom of Bohr.

Side note: Notice that you’d probably not have heard about this story were it not for the Bohr factor. Probably, more discussion has taken place about Bohr’s interests in cowboy movies and gunslinging than the actual science results. This is often the fate of science in the media. Let me also be the first to point out that I am also buying into the Bohr factor here too, so I am not trying to be above it all. I like that there are glimpses into the lives of scientists outside the science they are known for. It is important to see. Remember: it is a large part of the motivation of this blog.


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