“Going Boldly Where No Hat Has Gone Before…”

So where do I get one of these?

In other physics (?) news – did you hear Steven Chu on NPR’s “Wait, wait, don’t tell me…”? He played a game called “Not My Job,” wherein a person of one profession (like physicist) is asked questions about a totally different one (in this case, the Washington Generals). That guy is the best.

Alright, here’s something – Niels Bohr back in the news. I’m a big fan of Bohr. They guy is a renowned physicist, but really he was a Renaissance man. He wasn’t just interested in physics, he was interested in life. He laid some pretty intense philosophical ground work in relation to quantum physics, together with Werner Heisenberg and Einstein. And from all the stories I’ve heard of him, he was just an all around curious and creative guy. Easily one of my top ten people I’d like to meet.

Back in his heyday, Bohr speculated that the time it takes to a person to react is shorter than the time it takes to consciously act. A great case to illustrate this (or perhaps it was this case that generated the speculation) was gunfights.

Bohr believed that if two cowboys were about having a gun duel, the guy who drew his gun first (made a conscious choice to do it) would draw slower than the man who drew his gun as a reaction to the first guy’s draw. The second guy would be drawing almost unconsciously – or without going through the mental process of deciding to draw his gun, and Bohr believed that would give him an advantage.

So Bohr, ever the physicist, held experiments to prove his theory! He used fake guns, obviously, but the results were what he expected. The second person to draw – the person reacting, not acting – was faster!

BUT a new study shows that the person reacting might not WIN the gunfight. The reaction time advantage is a few milliseconds, which is not enough time to beat few hundred millisecond lead that the first man has over the second. The only time this wouldn’t be true is if the second man were already significantly faster than the first. Furthermore, in more complicated tests of reaction versus action, the person who reacts makes errors more often than the person who consciously acts.

So Bohr’s results were not totally wrong. But they do tell us that besides being a physicist and a philosopher, Bohr was quite the gunslinger.

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