Drug Doping and Mathematics
The use of mind enhancing drugs in mathematics
Alberto Contador is the winner of the 2010 Tour de France road bicycle race. Or is he? He currently stands accused of cheating and could have his victory taken away.
Today I have a short question about doping and doing mathematics.
Contador is accused of two types of doping. One involves the drug clenbuterol, and the other involves infusing his own blood. The latter increases the athlete’s own red blood cells, allowing more oxygen to be carried, and thus yields better performance and endurance. It is interesting that the test that detected this looked not at blood cells, but at the presence of certain molecules that come from plastic IV bags used to store blood.
The battle between athletes who want to perform well and the drug testers seems to be never ending. The detection method of looking for the plastic molecules seems very clever, but perhaps next year the blood will be stored in glass containers. Who knows. It reminds me of the battle we have in cyber-crime. For every attack, there is eventually a defense, but then a better attack, and on and on.
I have often wondered as a sports fan whether the banning of drugs in the various sports makes any sense. The Tour de France has been called the “dirtiest event in all sports” by some sport writers. I have often wondered what they should do in that sport—but let’s leave that for the experts.
The Doping Question
Suppose there was a new wonder drug, let’s call it , that for a short time tremendously increases your ability to concentrate and therefore to solve mathematical problems. Of course nothing is free; the drug would have bad side effects and health risks. The question is: Would you take the drug?
Would you take the drug and use it to solve P=NP? Or to solve other problems? What if the health risks were high? Would that change your mind? What if you needed to be on the drug for months while you were working on the proof, would that change your answer?
Drugs have and continue to play a role in doing mathematics. The following quote is well known:
A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.
Some attribute this to Paul Erdős, but apparently it was first stated by Alfréd Rényi. In any case, Erdős did believe that he needed drugs, amphetamines in particular, to enhance his abilities. I have already discussed this here.
Ken Regan adds that we can ask how organizations for “mind sports” have recently approached the doping question. Since there is no anti-doping organization, yet, for mathematics, we will examine what the World Chess Federation (FIDE) does—the “we” means Ken. Note, FIDE has been affiliated with the International Olympic Committee since 1999, and thus adheres to the IOC’s framework for doping rules and tests.
There has been controversy over the requirement to adhere to the single list of banned substances published by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which was initially funded by the IOC. FIDE also belongs to the International Mind Sports Association (ISMA), which held its first ever World Mind Sports Games in Beijing right after the 2008 Olympic Games, and hopes to hold their second games in Britain sometime after the 2012 Olympics. Players of these games are torn between feelings like those expressed here and their desire to be associated with the Olympics.
FIDE’s own Chess Olympiad is held every two years, and the 2010 edition just finished this past weekend in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia. Ukraine took gold over Russia and Israel in the open/men’s event, while Russia won the women’s event. The Ukrainian team thus atoned for their ignominious last-round collapse against the USA in the 2008 Olympiad in Dresden.
After that collapse, their distraught top player Vassily Ivanchuk skipped a drug test he had been randomly selected for. The prospect of a two-year ban for Ivanchuk brought howls of protest from chess-players. This was mollified only by the official decision to accept Ivanchuk’s explanation that he did not know of his selection for testing, since the manner of its communication was improper. That was good for the Ukraine because the mercurial Ivanchuk was the top performer at Khanty-Mansiysk, winning the individual gold medal for all Board 1 players.
Alfred and Paul’s cup of coffee has been at the center of a controversy in chess. Having stimulating beverages during games is completely cultural in the chess world. Indeed the rules of the 2010 European Individual Chess Championships required the organizers to provide “coffee or tea or water” during the matches. The question is, how does one distinguish a “cuppa” from strong doses of caffeine in tablet form or injected before an event? WADA took caffeine off its banned list in 2004, to the relief of chess players. However, WADA is considering re-banning it, following an incident in August where an Australian-rules football player was hospitalized after caffeine tablet use. Caffeine is a drug, after all.
Thus the issue of whether to take drugs is really “where to draw the line.” But it is hard because not only may it depend on the sport, it may depend on the local human culture. Then again, if the rationale is not to allow substances that carry high health risks, why should that depend on culture or sport?
Would you take the drug if it helped you solve hard problems? What professional regulations ought to be relevant?