Monday, March 01, 2010

Think Twice Before You Draw

At 5:45 a.m. I catch the end of the BBC WORLD NEWS UPDATE - on Vermont Public Radio 89.5 FM. A few weeks ago they aired "The Gunfighters' Dilemma" -- my favorite kind of story where popular belief gets turned upside down and tied to higher-order principles and we all get to reflect on big issues.

It seems Danish physicist and Noble Laureate Niels Bohr used to take breaks from quantum physics + atomic bombs to watch cowboy movies. Being an alert and curious scholar, Bohr noticed that the first man to draw a gun in the inevitable showdown always died. This suited the moral high ground of good guys and bad guys in 1950's westerns, but it was also a puzzle to be solved by physicists and their graduate students.

Sure enough, after a series of carefully controlled lab gunfights, the gunslinger who drew first, died. It had to do with response time -- "reacting to your opponent's movement was significantly faster than the conscious decision to draw your own gun".

Professor Andrew Welchman studies reaction time and other brain function at the University of Birmingham, England. He conducted similar research with the same results. Draw second in a western-style gunfight and you win and live... maybe.

For a more practical application, he spoke about instinctive reaction and response time and how it plays out in life/death situations -- you jump to safety when the bus careens down the street at you. You don't stop to think, you react.

This talk of gunslingers brought me back to 1950's Saturday morning TV. Hopalong Cassidy. Roy Rogers. The Lone Ranger. We played cowboys and Indians, complete with fringed shirts, boots, hats and leather holsters with plastic guns. Later things got more complicated, as they do with age. Rawhide. Clint Eastwood and the "spaghetti westerns". Movies and life started to blur good guys and bad guys, but we still believed the popular logic that "first to draw, wins".

Then came 1963 and Kennedy's assassination. April 1968 and Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed. June 5, 1968: Robert Kennedy shot and killed. May 4, 1970: Kent State massacre where students were shot by the Ohio National Guard. All the while there was Vietnam and it didn't matter who shot first or second or third.

This litany of my coming-of-age pales in the light of today's guns and warfare and popular culture. I think we still believe the fastest gun -- the first to strike -- wins. Too bad we don't listen more carefully to our scientists and teachers and thinkers.

My vision: Put the two biggest warmongers (from countries, neighborhoods, whatever) face to face, each with a gun, and let them wait for the other to draw first. Then, maybe the rest of us will be able to live, thrive, and survive in peace.

Illustration by Frederic Remington, 1861-1909. "A Dash for the Timber".


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gretchen said...

Thank you so much for your comment. It is so good to know there is someone "out there" reading and looking forward to my blog entries.

I promise I won't give up! There will be more to come.

Ian said...

Wow really deep and the scinece behind it is truly fascinating. It's interesting that the first thing I thought of when I read "Put the two biggest warmongers (from countries, neighborhoods, whatever) face to face, each with a gun, and let them wait for the other to draw first" was that this already happened. It's sort of what the Cold War was, no? But in the end no one drew. I get the feeling though that if someone had there would be no winners.

Hopefully people will start realizing that old fashioned show downs don't work so well anymore. After Iraq and Afghanistan you wonder if people are starting to get that with the number of people we have in this world and their degree of interconnectedness that it can't really be so simple as a 'you vs me' or an 'us vs. them' situation. The world nowadays is too complicated and those sorts of shoot outs are becoming far too messy.

gretchen said...

You're so right, Ian. The trouble for me is that a lot of people did die during the Cold War, and I was expecting much more good to come from Glasnost and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Thanks so much for commenting. I also find the science so fascinating. I would have loved studying with a professor who asked provocative questions and then played them out.