Strong theorems from excellent coffee


Paul Erdos

It’s well-known, but probably not true, that the Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdös said a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.

As Peter Cameron points out on his “Coffee into Theorems” post, it was probably another Hungarian mathematician Alfréd Rényi who actually said this.

Coffee is important to the academic enterprise, especially for mathematicians. As Cameron writes:

In happy and productive mathematics departments, there is usually a ritual of gathering in a common space mid-morning and/or mid-afternoon. General conversation serves a social function; mathematical discussion spreads ideas and encourages collaboration; and grumbles about aspects of academic life reinforce collegiality and also let department heads and administrators know what we are thinking.

 If a college, school or university department does not budget for coffee then it is left to individuals to supply coffee, if not for others, then at least for themselves. Such arrangements are likely to lead to coffee machines and coffee supplied in individual sealed sachets. Such coffee is not usually of the highest quality.

As yet another Hungarian mathematician, Paul Turán, is supposed to have said: “Weak coffee is suitable only for lemmas”

If Paul Turán and Erdös/Rényi are right, then strong theorems, with considerable impact, will only result from outstanding coffee. One of the world’s most outstanding coffees, at least in price, is kopi luwak, which is made from coffee beans excreted by civet cats.


Civet eating coffee beans

The civets eat coffee beans , which then ferment in the civet’s digestive tract:

The civet’s proteolytic enzymes seep into the beans, making shorter peptides and more free amino acids. Passing through a civet’s intestines the beans are then defecated with other fecal matter and collected.  (Kopi Luwak: wikipedia)

The civet poop, from which kopi luwak is made

The civet poop, from which kopi luwak is made

So a forward looking mathematics department will find a way to invest in supplies of kopi luwak, which retails for about US $700 per kilogram, if they want to stimulate the production of strong theorems, according to the Erdös/Rényi/Turán  hypothesis.

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Read about the importance of quality coffee for mathematician’s daily work in “Coffee, Love and Matrix Algebra”