Dr. Neutrino's Science Odyssey

Los Alamos Showdown

There is a moment in any scientific career when you feel like you've just stepped into a world far stranger than anything you've known before, and the totality of your experiences are less than a mote of dust. That moment for me was not when I first stepped into the dark woods as a youth, nor when I undertook my Doctorate, nor was when I went to work at Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project.

For me, it was watching Dr. Niels Bohr stare down Dr. Richard Feynman outside my lab. I was in the crowd of onlookers watching as the two intellectual titans faced off. This was not one of their friendly debates about neutron physics.

"Why don't you go first, Niels?" the younger Feynman reached for a revolver in his pocket. "I swear I won't pick your office door lock again."

"Surely you are joking, Dr. Feynman," Bohr taunted his rival. I could see his fingers hover near a six-gun of his own. "The hero never draws first. This I learned from your country's Western movies."

I felt as though I was an insect before these two giants. Feynman's hand shot for his pistol. A gunshot cracked, and a wisp of smoke floated upwards. Feynman clutched his chest, and dropped his gun into the sand. Feynman looked up a Bohr, admitting defeat as he stumbled forwards. "You got me."

Bohr stood confidently with a smoking revolver, his mood brighter than the sun. He opened the replica revolver, and put in a new roll of caps. "Does anyone else wish to challenge the Sixgun of Science?"

Feynman picked up his dropped cap gun from the ground, and picked me out of the crowd of onlookers. "Hello, Nate," he made eye contact with me. I had only met him in passing before. For a moment, I was star-struck by my more famous coworker addressing an obscure, newly minted PhD as myself. "You can shoot, right?"

"Yes, Dr. Feynman," I replied, in some inexplicable formality towards the man. "My father fought in the trenches, and thought it was important I learn. But I'm no expert."

"Then step up, my young friend," Dr. Bohr gave me a warm smile. "An expert is just a man who has made all the mistakes that can be made within a narrow field."

"Nate, if you duel him, I'll show you how to pick locks," Feynman grinned. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained."

"Fine," I replied sheepishly. How I had been talked into dueling a world-famous physicist with toy pistols, I was unsure.

I slipped the toy gun into my pocket and stood to face the Danish gunslinger. He slid the pistol back into his pocket, keeping his hand hovering nearby. He sized me up like a vulture preparing to swoop on a dying man. I returned the favor, meeting him eye to eye.

For what seemed like eternity, I waited for him to make a move. The Dane had the patience of a statue, waiting for me to draw first. Figuring I had one chance to make this work, I shifted my body slightly and shot from the hip as fast as I could. Two shots rang out. I saw Dr. Bohr drop his gun, clutch his chest, and fall backwards, pretending to be vanquished.

"You shot before I did," Dr. Bohr replied, closing his fingers together. "But only by this much."

"Well, Niels, your theory about the hero never shooting first was interesting, but your experiment cannot fool reality," Feynman replied. "Good work, Nate. You've disproved another of his theories."

I was still amazed by how fast the older physicist could move. If he had ever stared down an outlaw at high noon, I was sure he'd be the one to walk away. Feynman reached into his pocket and pulled out a small bag. His hand vanished within and drew out a chocolate chip cookie. "Here, Nate," he patted me on the back and handed one to me. "Here's a cookie from Niels' office. Thankfully, he hasn't changed his lock recently."

"Very well, you may enjoy my refreshments," Bohr pocketed his cap gun and shook my other hand. "Good work, Dr. Neutrino. I would hope to exchange words with you in the future, rather than lead."

While I encountered many other strange moments on my scientific career, that was among the strangest in my opinion. Even after I had transferred to the Groom Lake Special Projects Division, I consider everything I encountered paling in comparison to my time at Los Alamos. But, before I get ahead of myself, let me tell you how my stranger escapades began.