Sunday, August 05, 2012

Erdös and amphetamines: check

Some weeks ago I wrote a review on Jonah Lehrer's book "Imagine," in which I complained about missing references. Now that it turns out Lehrer fabricated quotes and facts on various occasions (see eg here and here), I recalled that I meant to look up a reference on an interesting story he told, that the famous mathematician Paul Erdös kept up his productivity by taking benzedrine. Benzedrine belongs to the amphetamines, also known as speed. Lehrer did not quote any source for this story.

So I did look it up, and it turns out it's true. In Paul Hoffman's biography of Erdös one finds:
Erdös first did mathematics at the age of three, but for the last twenty-five years of his life, since the death of this mother, he put in nineteen-hour days, keeping himself fortified with 10 to 20 milligrams of Benzedrine or Ritalin, strong espresso, and caffeine tablets. "A mathematician," Erdös was fond of saying, "is a machine for tuning coffee into theorems." When friends urged him to slow down, he always had the same response: "There'll be plenty of time to rest in the grave."
(You can read chapter 1 from the book, which contains this paragraph, here).
Benzedrine was available on prescription in the USA during this time. Erdös lived to the age of 83. During his lifetime, he wrote or co-authored 1,475 academic papers.

Lehrer also relates the following story in his book
Ron Graham, a friend and fellow mathematician, once bet Erdos five hundred dollars that he couldn't abstain from amphetamines for thirty days. Erdos won the wager but complained that the progress of mathematicians had been set back by a month: "Before, when I looked at a piece of blank paper, my mind was filled with ideas," he complained. "Now all I see is a blank piece of paper.
(Omitted umlauts are Lehrer's, not mine.) Lehrer does not mention Erdös was originally prescribed benzedrine to treat depression after his mother's death. I'm not sure exactly what the origin of this story is. It is mentioned in a slightly different wording in this PDF by Joshua Hill:
Erdős's friends worried about his drug use, and in 1979 Graham bet Erdős $500 that he couldn't stop taking amphetamines for a month. Erdős accepted, and went cold turkey for a complete month. Erdős's comment at the end of the month was "You've showed me I'm not an addict. But I didn't get any work done. I'd get up in the morning and stare at a blank piece of paper. I'd have no ideas, just like an ordinary person. You've set mathematics back a month." He then immediately started taking amphetamines again.
Hill's article is not quoted by Lehrer, and there's no reference in Hill's article. It also seems to go back to Paul Hoffman's book (same chapter).

(Note added: I revised the above paragraph, because I hadn't originally seen it in Hoffman's book.)

Partly related: Calculate your Erdős number here, mine is 4.


  1. Hi Bee,

    Interesting revelations regarding Erdös, it’s certainly fortunate for mathematicians that the Fields medal committee has no issues regarding performance enhancing drugs. Moreover it’s probably fortunate for mathematics in general there isn’t a stigma attached to cerebral excellence as it is to athletic.



  2. Hi Phil,

    Interesting point. Well, the committees for the Field's medal or the Nobel price are only concerned with the outcome, not with the process that lead there, which is very different to sport. I guess there is probably nothing prohibiting a wealthy man to give out an award for high performance, no matter how it was achieved. If it became clear that success in science was correlated with drug intake that compromises health in the long run, this would be seriously worrisome. However, I think the evidence at this point is very mixed. Productivity isn't the same as creativity, and anecdotes don't replace data. Best,


  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Hi Bee,

    I think you sense I wasn’t being critical of Erdös, yet more curious as to how these ethical lines we draw are arrived at respective of the relevance they actually have. The fact is the way it’s perceived in athletics I find to be more connected to this concept of natural that’s been hoisted more so than any risks the drugs may entail. I find it interesting that science has on one hand identified evolution as the process we arose from and yet insist it be the only process that be allowed to set both our future course and our limitations. More over I just thought this would be interesting perspective to share with someone who is concerned as I am about those who insist we leave our fate left up to that invisible hand.



    P.S. Seeing this took me three attempts suggests I need some performance enhancing substance right about now :-)

  7. There's a wonderful documentary film on Paul Erdös:

    (It maybe his pills with which he shows the trick to a child about 40 minutes in the movie;-))

  8. Phil, suppose we had a hundred years to avert a global catastrophe, and humanity was united in the drive to do so, but we didn't have the scientific know how. Some few breakthroughs are needed. Then being a guinea pig for this kind of creativity and productivity enhancement might be seen as something heroic.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. Cooments at which leads us to a three year old article about this in the New Yorker

  11. Speed for productivity, acid for creativity.

    Why not?

    I've tried both. It works.


  12. Note that the name Erdős uses the 'double acute accent' ( ˝ ), which is a diacritic mark of the Latin script (it is not the same as the umlaut). The double acute accent is used primarily in written Hungarian, and consequently is sometimes referred to as Hungarumlaut, a portmanteau of "Hungarian umlaut".

  13. Hi David,

    Thanks for pointing out the difference, which wasn't clear to me. (I seem to have used both.) Best,


  14. Without being specific here in regards to Erdos and drug taking the greater question for me would be how does one activate the enhanced mathematical potential that exists without the use of.

    The fact such experiments were done for enhancement potentials, were often in question during the time some of our younger crowd might not have see or understood of the youth of the sixties.

    This question was first hand presented to me by my older brother. He laid out his experiment for me. Yes, afterword, it was very difficult to understand if you were not their in mind?:) Quite a jumble.

    So of course you look historically at some of our great mathematicians and see what capabilities were exhibited.

    More to exam what what being shown in terms of their mathematical skills and how this was arrived at. Some emergent process perhaps of pattern identification from cognitive potential not realized before.

    So what may have seemed unusual in attributes of your examples that you can see some pattern established is to recognize a greater expository capable of demonstrating algebraic and visual skills at the same time? Is to recognize the vastness of our parameters of thinking can not only contain our fullest life past but asks the question of the forefront of our mind that such evolution exists as has been demonstrated in some of the most amazing puzzles demonstrated by the Clay institute.

    These shaped thinking processes.

  15. While one might question mathematical skill is there some apparent thought process evolving toward what one might say? I think that examining our potential exists with a whole historical process that has lead us to the questions about our advancements as a population with regard to the developments of the day?

    So how much are you really with it today?

    Some elements of transhumanist thought and research are considered by critics to be within the realm of fringe science because it departs significantly from the mainstream.[82] The very notion and prospect of human enhancement and related issues also arouse public controversy.[83] Criticisms of transhumanism and its proposals take two main forms: those objecting to the likelihood of transhumanist goals being achieved (practical criticisms); and those objecting to the moral principles or world view sustaining transhumanist proposals or underlying transhumanism itself (ethical criticisms). However, these two strains sometimes converge and overlap, particularly when considering the ethics of changing human biology in the face of incomplete knowledge. See:Transhumanism

    So you may see elements of your self, yet, not identified with it before?

    So you say the world does not have a mathematical basis to it? Just thinking out loud.


  16. "Note that the name Erdős uses the 'double acute accent' ( ˝ ), which is a diacritic mark of the Latin script (it is not the same as the umlaut). The double acute accent is used primarily in written Hungarian, and consequently is sometimes referred to as Hungarumlaut, a portmanteau of "Hungarian umlaut"."

    At least it's not the heavy-metal Umlaut. :-)Ü

  17. Autism, Asperger's syndrome, attention deficit disorder... the effective medication is speed - the real deal (Adderall), or pretenders to the throne (Ritalin). Erdős knew what he was doing.

    War on Drugs highest priority must be spot urine tests of all ivory tower personnel (except for managers). All papers published by doped academicians must be withdrawn. Then, jackbooted State compassion goes down the Erdős number list like Pol Pot sought eyeglasses.

  18. John von Neumann, the mathematician and computer pioneer, also lived on Benzedrine for years. He was noted for 20 hour days, brilliant ideas, and driving all around the US, from lab to lab, He died fairly young, of cancer.



If the number of comments exceeds 200 you must click LOAD MORE at the bottom of the page to see all comments. This is also true for replies to threads. I know this sucks. Please complain to Google about this, not to me.

Comment moderation on this blog is turned on. Submitted comments will only appear after manual approval, which can take up to 24 hours.

Comments posted as "Unknown" go straight to junk. You may have to click on the orange-white blogger icon next to your name to change to a different account.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.