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Ever Wonder About Dodging a Bullet?

While on vacation in Toronto, my loving daughter volunteered to have me shot. It was part of a demonstration in the MythBusters exhibition, at the Ontario Science Centre, to test whether humans could dodge a bullet, or at least a paintball. So, in the name of science, I signed the waiver.

For the demonstration, the enthusiastic presenters, Amanda and Sarah, had three of us volunteers smack hand-held, big buttons, to test our reaction time. They invited the audience to join in by using their “invisible buttons” (clapping their hands). First they timed our reaction to a light signal, like the kind behind the net at a hockey rink. Turned out that I was the fastest at 0.4 seconds. Then they tested our reaction to sound. Our average response for the sound reaction was marginally faster than for light, which is commonly the case. Mine was not as quick. This may have been because I was distracted by all the ambient noise and I wasn’t really sure what to listen for. Here is a clip of this test being done at another venue, where, on average, sound also resulted in a faster reaction time. Here is an Internet challenge that will test your reaction time to light. Results, including my own, were faster for the online test; probably because I was just clicking a mouse rather than having to move my whole hand from beneath a button to the top.

I was chosen to be the target for the demonstration, because my reaction time was the fastest over all. Maybe it had to do with my being a goalie, or maybe the other two were just smarter and realized that they did not want to win anyway. The presenters suited me up with goggles, a neck protector, a padded lab coat and a riot shield. I began to wonder if I should have read the fine print more carefully! 

In the original MythBusters episode, they tested the average speed of a projectile over different distances and found that the speed decreased over time, presumably from the cumulative effect of drag on the projectile as it travels through the air. In the demonstration, they had limited space, so they controlled the delay between the signal and the firing to simulate different distances, though they did not factor in the deceleration. I reacted to the light signal the fastest in the preliminary test, so they used that.

When I play goal in ice hockey, I see the puck on the stick and I can tell when they are going to shoot. Sometimes I even stop the puck. In this case, I imagined myself in the Matrix bending over backwards to avoid the bullets in slow motion, but in reality, the paintball went so fast that I did not even see it until it hit the shield. I just had to move when I saw the light. It takes practise to develop an appropriate automatic reaction, which we did not have time for. Eventually, when they cranked the time delay up to one second, I was able to get out of the way and the paintball hit the gong. I took my bows as the audience applauded.

Incidentally, the famous physicist Niels Bohr speculated that if you are in duel, you will be faster if you draw second, because you are reacting without thinking. But scientists from Birmingham University found that you would not be fast enough, so you'd still get shot. Duelling is not recommended as a way to resolve arguments, nor is dodging bullets recommended as a pastime.