Saturday, December 24, 2011

Advent calendar #24: Bohr's theory of the Wild West

Today's anecdote about Niels Bohr comes from George Gamow's book "Thirty years that shook physics - The story of quantum theory." This is the same Gamow we have met earlier in correspondence with Wolfgang Pauli. Gamow is the person who famously predicted the cosmic background radiation long before it was discovered. In the late 1920s, he was a student in Copenhagen under Niels Bohr, and tells the following:
The only movies [Bohr] liked were Wild Westerns (Hollywood style), and he always needed a couple of his students to go with him and explain the complicated plots... But his theoretical mind showed even in this movie expeditions. He developed a theory to explain why although the villain always draws first, the hero is faster and manages to kill him. This Bohr theory was based on psychology. Since the hero never shots first, the villain has to decide when to draw, which impedes his action. The hero on the other hand acts according to conditioned reflexes and grabs the gun automatically as soon as he sees the villain's hand move. We disagreed with this theory, and the next day I went to a toy store and bought two guns in Western holders. We shot it out with Bohr, he being the hero, and he "killed" all his students.


  1. This is the best one of the series! It really made me laugh. And I would like to replicate the experiment, I'm quite skeptical about the result.

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  3. Hi Bee and Stefan,

    I thought rather than appealing to psychology Bohr would have attempted to put this into the context of the Copenhagen Interpretation, to have the whole thing rest as being resultant between the uncertainty principle and the dependence upon observation for something to be real. That is as the Bad guy is uncertain when things will be made to happen has the Good guy having the advantage being the first observing it to be so. Further in such situations only one reality can be observed to necessitate a single collapsed state being the outcome.

    Never the less I still prefer the Bohmian (BM) approach, which has the Good guy not able to know the determined yet private will of the Bad Guy thus needing to wait until it is revealed and yet the Good Guy still shoots first since the Bad Guy only being familiar with CI is left totally confused in relation to action and outcome while the Good guy in knowing BM as not being so confused acts in a determined and better guided manner. I thus would contend the reason Bohr won in this instance is he left his students more confused than himself and it might have been a different outcome if deBroglie would have been his opponent (that is until Pauli in 1927 left him as uncertain as well) :-)

    Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year,


  4. Good one. Thanks Stefan and Sabine. It reminds me of Paul Dirac (my 3rd favorite scientist after Newton and Einstein) in his later years, when he loved cartoons, and especially Cher Bono of Sonny and Cher.

    It says to me that Scientists are much more multi-dimensional than their Science, that Scientists are people too. They're not just, as Hollywood presents, either mad geniuses bent on world domination, nor ditzy hotties stuck on an island of idiots, trying to explain the most basic stuff to Gilligan and Mrs. Thurston Howell III.

  5. @Steven Colyer They're not just, as Hollywood presents, either mad geniuses bent on world domination, (don't subscribe to the IPO - make them write a grant funding application) nor ditzy hotties stuck on an island of idiots
    Hedy Lamarr and spread spectrum.
    Politically corrected.

    Embrace the bench top of the Dark Side.

  6. This is one of my favorite scientist anecdotes :) I remember some time back about a study which claimed to confirm Bohr's hypothesis.

  7. Great! I think his theory is plausible. As for physics: maybe we can at least agree, when Bohr shoots "a bullet" it makes only *one* bullet hole, regardless of how it gets there ....

  8. This reminds me of a scene from one of my favorite samurai movies (Kurosawa, natch), where the bad guy draws his sword first, lifting it above his head, in the traditional manner, while the good guy responds by drawing his sword and slicing his opponent in a single upward movement. Bohr would have loved that!

    This anecdote provides an excellent clue to Bohr's genius, because he is able to cut (no pun intended) directly to the essential point. The initiator of any attack is always at a disadvantage, despite the element of surprise, because there will always be a certain element of hesitation and preparation prior to his decision, while his opponent is free to respond instantaneously.

    When learning Karate, I was instructed to always look my opponent directly in the eye, because you could tell from his eye movements what he was about to do. And it always worked. You could easily parry any blow since the preparation and decision to attack takes time while the response (once you've been trained) is instantaneous.

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  10. Folks, take a look at this, it's gorgeous and spiritual in it's own way: Hubble Advent Calendar.
    Merry What-you-wish, everyone!

  11. "ditzy hotties stuck on an island of idiots, trying to explain the most basic stuff to Gilligan and Mrs. Thurston Howell III"

    A reference to the Professor, of course. I never thought of him as a dizzy hotty, though. :-) Actually, he wasn't that bad as TV professors go. Rumour has it that he was modelled on Feynman.


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