Thursday, January 29, 2004

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Who wants caffeine?

Think you consume caffiene? See Brad DeLong.

Unimpressed? Then go read Jacob Levy's post on his caffeine consumption.

Neither of them, however, comes close to approaching the caffeine consumption of Paul Erdos. As he once said, "A mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems."

UPDATE: James Joyner has more, including this very funny comment.

Relative to these people, I have a very mild habit. I didn't really drink coffee until I was in graduate school (Itried as an undergraduate, felt like my stomach lining was being ripped to shreds, and stopped soon afterwards). Even then, my gateway drug was the Starbucks mocha.

However, what got me to one cup a day was neither graduate school nor my job -- it was parenting.

posted by Dan on 01.29.04 at 02:54 PM


When I was an ABD teching Math Econ. at the University of Utah, I made the mistake of bringing up Erdos' claim (I always thought it was turning pencils and coffee into theorems). Anyway, I then commented that this was probably why there are so few great Mormon mathemeticians. It was probably the worst comment I ever made in a class, but it did get quite a few laughs - even from the Mormon students.

posted by: David Tufte on 01.29.04 at 02:54 PM [permalink]

A good line. I misattributed it to Einstein.

posted by: James Joyner on 01.29.04 at 02:54 PM [permalink]

He graduated to amphetamines.

posted by: Ken Hirsch on 01.29.04 at 02:54 PM [permalink]

As the decendent of a famous mathematician, let me deflate everyone's stereotypes by revealing that my grandfather (Alonzo Church) did not drink coffee.

But, to show that he at least adhered to some of the expected traits, he had a big science fiction habit.

posted by: appalled moderate on 01.29.04 at 02:54 PM [permalink]

I for one, tend to order my coffee a special way:


Blows the waitress's mind every time.

posted by: Bithead on 01.29.04 at 02:54 PM [permalink]

6 shots a day myself. I might have to increase my dosage.

posted by: BigFire on 01.29.04 at 02:54 PM [permalink]

When I was a young, excelling software designer/programmer, I never had breakfast or lunch until 17:00. There was only Segafredo and tobacco. The result was a) virtually flawless software and b) 15 years later, the end of my career.

posted by: Lavazzo on 01.29.04 at 02:54 PM [permalink]

You forgot to mention the inevitable mathematical joke/rejoiner: "Therefore, we see that a co-mathematician is a device for turning theorems into coffee."

posted by: John Thacker on 01.29.04 at 02:54 PM [permalink]

I'm a grad student at MIT; we have the coffee/mathematician/theorem joke written above our coffee maker (although, oddly, it's mis-attributed to Alfred Renyi... hmmm).

Right below it is written the excellent follow-up, by Paul Turan, "Weak coffee is fit only for lemmas."

posted by: Arthegall on 01.29.04 at 02:54 PM [permalink]

40 oz. of diet Coke? That's serious caffeine?!?

I'm older and more moderate now, but when I was in grad school breakfast was two tablespoons of coffee eaten straight out of the bag, washed down with a glass of Coke (the Real Thing (TM) not some wussy diet crap).

Now that's a caffeine buzz.

And did I mention that my field was mathematics?
Or was that obvious?

posted by: uh_clem on 01.29.04 at 02:54 PM [permalink]

Malcolm Gladwell had a good article in the New Yorker (I just found it at, discussing arguments that the introduction of coffee explains the industrial revolution.

posted by: phil schaefer on 01.29.04 at 02:54 PM [permalink]

I enjoy your blog and this is the first time I've posted:

At the risk of being P.I.: have you ever estimated the dollar value (past) of Starbucks Mochas? Or in the cause of conservation (dollars; a worthy alternative to gasoline, environment, etc.) the next ten years' value?

I've determined that my penury is minimized by the fact that I don't spend much money. I'm a recently (self-)impoverished retired programmer. My calculation: $1 per month for 10 years (my mortality table allows for at least that long :)) is $120 saved for every $1 monthly reduction in expenses.

Et vous? (OT: who knows: perhaps in the next blogosphere it might be et tu!).


posted by: Dan Glickman on 01.29.04 at 02:54 PM [permalink]

I never drank coffee either, really, until the arrivial of my first, a daughter. Now, I'm a Java Junkie to the point of shame.
Also, to anyone who tells me that coffee isn't addictive, I say: Go a week without it. Good luck.

posted by: rhinoman on 01.29.04 at 02:54 PM [permalink]

Since the thread seems to be devolving;

The point about $tarbucks interests me.

I've found that I generally don't like their regular coffee as much as I do some others... "Seatle's Best" as an example. The Seatle's Best French Roast is astounding for it's richness. File it right next to a loud explosion for waking one up in the morning. $tarbuck's mixed stuff is OK, if expensive, but it's certainly preferred over the regular brews. I've found that I don't buy the Seatle's mixed stuff very often... with their regular brews being so good, you hardly need it.

Now if only they had more outlets.

posted by: Bithead on 01.29.04 at 02:54 PM [permalink]

Found this of some interest to this topic:

posted by: Bithead on 01.29.04 at 02:54 PM [permalink]

Starbucks doesn't really sell coffee. Starbucks sells warm milk with a smidgen of coffee flavor. If you pay extra you can get them to add coffee to your glass of warm milk and obtain a reasonably facsimile of an actual cup of coffee.

But it seems like most of their customers just go for the warm milk.

posted by: uh_clem on 01.29.04 at 02:54 PM [permalink]

Concerning Erdos: there's an interesting story in his biography, "The Man Who Loved Only Numbers". One of his friends was getting concerned about his daily intake of amphetamines, so he challenged Erdos to a bet, that Erdos could not stop taking the speed cold turkey, for one month.

Erdos thought this ridiculous, and took the bet. He gladly stopped doing speed for a month. However, he noticed one terrible side-effect: he was unable to "do mathematics" 14 hours a day, as he was used to. He was simply not able to focus the way he did on speed.

posted by: Barry Posner on 01.29.04 at 02:54 PM [permalink]

What are the long-term health effects of massive caffeine intake?

posted by: Jonathan (WiredOpinion) on 01.29.04 at 02:54 PM [permalink]

Alas, a popular misattribution. The remark was actually made by Alfred Renyi, a friend of Erdos'; Renyi was a fellow Hungarian mathematician and frequent collaborator. As noted above, Erdos graduated to amphetamines, largely after the death of his mother in 1971.
Paul Turan, a friend of both Erdos and Renyi, after a cup of American coffee invented the corollary "Weak coffee is fit only for lemmas."

See My Brain is Open by Bruce Schechter for more details.

posted by: Jonathan Goldberg on 01.29.04 at 02:54 PM [permalink]

I said above "Frequent collaborators:' Turan and Erdos published 30 joint papers, Erdos and Renyi 32. This makes them 7th and 8th among the 201 people with whom Erdos published more than one joint paper


for full details on Erdos.

posted by: Jonathan Goldberg on 01.29.04 at 02:54 PM [permalink]

posted by: Brak on 01.29.04 at 02:54 PM [permalink]

In that case...

A programmer is a device for turning pizza and coke into Algorithms + Data-Structures!

posted by: Rob Read on 01.29.04 at 02:54 PM [permalink]

What are the long-term health effects of massive caffeine intake?

Combined with serious amphetamines, the effect is more mathematical papers than anyone since Leibniz. If you're Erdös Pál. Probably somewhat less beneficial for the rest of us.

posted by: Doug on 01.29.04 at 02:54 PM [permalink]

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