Sunday, February 15, 2015

Rocky Mountain Mathematical High

"When his friend Ronald Graham bet Erdös $500 he couldn't quit amphetamines for a month, Erdös won the bet but complained, 'I didn't get any work done... I'd have no ideas, like an ordinary person. You've set mathematics back a month.' Erdös went back to taking pills and writing papers.
"Hamilton and Erdös indulged their drug habits, it's said, to maintain their stamina. California chaos theorist Ralph Abraham is the only mathematician I know who has claimed drugs actually affected the contents of mathematical research, and for the better. In a 1991 interview with the style magazine
GQ, Abraham claimed, 'In the 1960s a lot of people on the frontiers of math experimented with psychedelic substances. There was a brief and extremely creative kiss between the community of hippies and top mathematicians. I know this because I was a purveyor of psychedelics to the mathematical community.' The interview is maddeningly short on specifics. Molecular biologist Kary Mullis 'seriously doubt[s]' that he would have invented the PCR technique for which he won the Nobel Prize if he hadn't taken LSD. Timothy Leary wrote in 1977 that he expected 'the new wave of turned on young mathematicians, physicists, and astronomers... to use their energized nervous systems... to provide new correlations between psychology and science.'...
"Pharmaceutical enhancement may be redundant if mathematics is itself the drug. Mathematicians stress the addiction even more than the buzz:

"Marcus du Sautoy: 'Doing mathematics is like taking a drug. Once you have experienced the buzz of cracking an unsolved problem or discovering a new mathematical concept, you spend your life trying to repeat that feeling.'"

-- From "Mathematics Without Apologies" by Michael Harris [my review of this new book now up at MathTango]

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