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Drug Doping and Mathematics

October 5, 2010

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 {T}, 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.

Mind Sports

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?

Open Problems

Would you take the drug {T} if it helped you solve hard problems? What professional regulations ought to be relevant?

73 Comments leave one →
  1. Fnord permalink
    October 5, 2010 7:29 pm

    I wouldn’t take a risky drug to solve NP=P.

    However, in this case, there is a relatively risk-free strategy which is not present in sporting events.

    Hire someone to take the drug, solve NP=P for you, and give you the solution.

    Studies have shown that lots of people are willing to risk their health for a reasonable sum of money.

  2. Mikero permalink
    October 5, 2010 8:29 pm

    The purpose of sport/game competitions is to determine who is the best player of XYZ. A level playing field is essential for such a question. As far as I know, the purpose of research is not to figure out who is the best researcher, but to advance human knowledge. As such, doping regulations don’t make much sense. In a sport/game competition, your use of a drug harms the other participants. In research, you’re only harming yourself (if anyone).

    • caRh permalink
      October 6, 2010 1:48 am

      I totally agree. This post is based on the harmful assumption that mathematics is a competition. Worse, it also favors this harmful assumption — which is bad service to the young researchers reading this blog.

      • October 6, 2010 4:59 am

        Mathematics/ computer sci. is not sport, is not a competition. If, for example, you think that you solve NP=P, then you need agreement from the community. Very possible that somebody will find errors in your proof, maybe somebody will improve your proof etc. I want to say that any important result in mathematics may be done via efforts of many people, unlike in sport, where every record is personal record. I do not think that everybody will use dangerous drugs to find errors in your proof etc.

      • Anonymous permalink
        October 6, 2010 8:56 am

        Mathematics is certainly a competition. Furthermore, this competition is not a “necessary compromise” to hard realities. It leads to strength in the field.

        A young mathematician who doesn’t learn this will never become an old mathematician; she will never get a job.

      • caRh permalink
        October 6, 2010 10:18 am

        > A young mathematician who doesn’t learn
        > this will never become an old mathematician;
        > she will never get a job.

        Nope, she will almost certainly become an old mathematician. She will just not get any of the “superstar” jobs that you have in mind when you write “job”.

        Her ending up completely unemployed is certainly possible, but highly unlikely. Just as unlikely, but still possible, is that she will end up teaching us employed ones the deep theorems that we will never have a shot at —guess why.

      • October 10, 2010 12:51 pm

        At least two opposite players are necessary for sport competition. For example, in chess: the first player has white, the 2nd has black. But when you are proving P=NP, who is your opposite player? 😉

      • adam o permalink
        November 15, 2010 10:58 am

        Just to expand on this point I think there are other valid frames of mind in which to cast research. For example one that resonates with me is research as art, like painting or playing an instrument. No one (who I know of anyway) objects to artists taking drugs. Interestingly I don’t think an element of competition is absent there, for example album sales, Grammy awards, etc can all be seen as a form of competition.

  3. October 5, 2010 9:03 pm

    I personally would not take drugs to enhance my mathematical abilities. However, I’m also an outlier and generally do not partake in caffeine and never take even headache/cold/cough medicine. I have an unfortunate history growing up in a household that heavily used pharmaceuticals (not abused in the illegal sense – but perhaps abused in an overabundance/overentusiasm sense).

    This is a personal stance. I ought to consider the question: should taking drugs to enhance mathematical capability be encouraged/allowed/banned? If someone sacrifices their physical health to obtain a result that will help our community, is that sacrifice altruistic or at its core selfish or dishonest?

    There are, as is generally the case with questions of this kind, many variables to be considered. There are aspects of the moral/ethical, the social, and of “legitimacy”; whether or not a result really “counts” as Person X’s Theorem if Person X took shortcuts. There’s also the question of the iterated prisoner’s dilemma – could a community that passively allows such medication turn into one where medication is required by de facto survival principles?

    Doing a quick jog over successfully applied ethical theories suggests the answer is no. From an Emersonian Self-Reliance/Authenticity standpoint, the use of doping seems hopelessly flat. From a Nichomachean standpoint it seems clear (on cursory thought) that medication as such is unlikely to help the excellence and flourishing of Person X’s character (who is now more likely consumed with hubris and pursuits outside his means than the alternative humble acceptance of his limitations) and is certain to be physically unhealthy. I can’t imagine the medicine not causing a ruckus for Kantian categorical imperatives.

    It’s the Bethamite Utilitarians that might disagree. They might ask, “isn’t it the case that if an individual sacrifices his health (or even his character) to resolve a question of great importance (like P versus NP), that this will result in pleasure beyond its associated pain?”

    Like the “Transplant Surgeon Objection,” one could escape this conclusion by adopting Mill’s Utilitarianism instead, realizing that what might seem like a good trade-off comes with certain baggage – that a community in which doping is allowed for these grounds might in fact be much worse off due to added stress, expectation, feelings of regret/inadequacy, of overdosing and of excuses to downplay the legitimacy another mathematician’s contributions – and so the trade-off in fact turns the other way around.

    Of course, this is only a shallow attack on resolving the question.

  4. October 5, 2010 9:11 pm

    People forget that our current obsession with doping rules in sports came about in the 1970’s when the US was getting whipped at every Olympic Games by the then East Germans.

    Instead of demanding a full disclosure of the drugs being used, the US pushed and got stupid bans.

    We should be demanding full disclosure of the drugs being used, stop being hypocritical about drugs which mimic genetically determined processes, and remove these idiotic drug testing unless they are designed only to confirm the full disclosure.

    It would also help if they gave Ben Johnson his gold medal back.

    • Patrice Ayme permalink
      October 6, 2010 6:23 pm

      Drug repression is much stronger in France than in the USA. That is why the French have found very hard to win anything in the Tour de France in the last two decades. The French got controlled out, from continual controls thoughout the year, the others were cheating. hence the present bilogical passport. For the first time in years, the French won a lot of stages this year in the Tour. replacing the blood also brings in brand new blood cells. Contador should definitively be stripped of his title, if convicted. To start with.

      The drug problem became obvious in the 1950s after the great British champion Simpson died in the Tour de France, during a mountain stage. From his drug usage, which led him over what his body could take, and stay alive.

      • October 6, 2010 11:06 pm

        Patrick, my point was that we should not be banning anything, only requiring full disclosure of the training program.

        I don’t care if cyclists kill themselves in pursuit of a medal; but, I do want the science behind it to be public.

      • October 8, 2010 2:02 am

        At the cost of falling deeper into the cups of bitter coffee and tea, I tell you my dream about establishing a branch of around my place. This is so that whenever I wished to buy a book from the other side of the world I’d be sure that it will be delivered in at most a month. (I suppose with the advent of eBooks this can be reduced to the speed of light although I always prefered the old fashioned paper books.) And Michael might be able to turn this dream true and me into’s local CEO! I really like that. Call me Doppie.

  5. tcs grad student permalink
    October 5, 2010 9:22 pm

    I take adderall regularly and I think it’s quite sad that some in the community consider it to be unethical, and for this reason keep that private. This is not a competition; at the end of the day we’re all here to solve problems, discover new things, and make progress in the field, not compare our brain/dick sizes. Anyone who has a problem with other researchers taking performance enhancing drugs should give serious thought to why they are doing research IMO.

  6. lifeofpi permalink
    October 5, 2010 9:28 pm

    Research is not a sport.

  7. Morley permalink
    October 5, 2010 9:47 pm

    Far more intriguing to me is the concept of drug T2, which has no side effects. I mean as in zero bad things will happen if you take this, and only lots of good things. What then? Should we as a society begin to take T2? Can workplaces demand employees take it, so they can get more out of them mentally? What about during University exams?

    Or how about T3, which leaves no trace after 1 week, but gives 3 days of neural connectivity increases in the brain, with permanent affects?

    We as a species are soon going to understand how we work, completely. From DNA to neural pathways. And when we do, so many more possibilities will open up. These things are coming. There is no if, or “is it possible”, there is simply a “when?”.

    • type-A for anonymous permalink
      October 7, 2010 1:40 pm

      I’m not sure why that’s interesting. As you describe it it has no risk and great reward, so why not?

      We as a society do stuff like this constantly for much greater risk. Do you think there would be 7 billion people in the world if we didn’t? In 1800 there were only 1 billion, so think carefully before you answer.

  8. vdawg permalink
    October 5, 2010 10:30 pm

    this is tangentially related:

  9. October 5, 2010 10:35 pm

    turning coffee into theorems

    Chasing the mind bugs may be, caffeine is actually an insecticide!
    Wired tested some of the (supposed) brain enhancers.

  10. roland permalink
    October 5, 2010 10:56 pm

    I have taken adderall on and off for the last 10 years. It helped me get my graduate degree in Mathematics in 2 semesters rather than the usual4 semesters. It doesn’t make you smarter just focuses your mind to stay on task. I have no complaints.

  11. Anonymous permalink
    October 5, 2010 10:59 pm

    P/NP truth might be beautiful but life is larger than that. And perhaps more beautiful.

  12. Anonymous permalink
    October 5, 2010 11:06 pm

    In fact, while I enjoy reading all your posts, one personal account that you had written on your sister – the one that had a small story on you having to judge paintings – literally drew tears in my eyes. So touching it was!

    Why miss the real beauty of life in search of p/np ..? Not that I am playing down any sacrifice, Just opposing the drugs 🙂

    • October 6, 2010 6:03 am

      Just opposing the drugs

      That kind of concern baffles me.
      You are NOT the one taking the drugs so what do you care?
      Why do you want to interfere with other people’s life?
      Would had it be “better” for you if Erdös didn’t had Meth?

      • Anonymous permalink
        October 6, 2010 4:10 pm

        “Opposing” – not for myself. I guess my stand is – if you don’t know the exact side-effects, or perhaps know that the drug in question has indeed some bad side-effects, then don’t take it. by taking a drug, if and when you bring upon a health hazard on yourself, everyone who’s associated with you in any meaningful way – suffers to some extent or other.

        Talking about Erdos, I don’t believe it is the amphetamine that was the ‘sole’ contributing factor behind his unparalleled productivity. I can take a truck-load of the same; will that turn me into Erdos? 🙂

  13. dmfdmf permalink
    October 5, 2010 11:18 pm

    “Back and forth through my mind, Behind a cigarette” Seven Nation Army: The White Stripes

    Nicotine is my favorite but I only use it when I get stuck, like on P=NP. I use caffeine to wake up, so that is not a drug to me but a chemical essential for life as we know it, like O2. If someone solves P=NP, pro or con, my admiration of them will not be diminished in the least if I learn that they used nicotine or caffeine or amphetamines or meth or cocaine or heroin or LSD, or all 7 intravenously. This can not be said of athletes who cheat.

    • Anonymous Coward permalink
      October 6, 2010 1:59 am

      About your last sentence: do you assume that anyone on strong enough drugs can achieve athletic performances? I seriously doubt that.

      • dmfdmf permalink
        October 6, 2010 10:32 am

        @AnonCo: No. My point was that if someone wins a gold metal or the batting title or the Tour de France and I find out they used drugs to do it I am disappointed (I think it is cheating) and my admiration falls.

  14. Milos Hasan permalink
    October 6, 2010 12:22 am

    I think the whole reason why athletics and chess are interesting is that they’re are done within the limits of the human body and mind. If you go outside of those limits by using artificial substances (or computer calculations), the whole activity loses its point – yes, you can beat the best runner if you use a motorcycle, but who cares?

    Mathematics seems to be different: we do not care which theorems could have been proved by Erdos if he did not use drugs. We simply want to know which theorems are true.

  15. October 6, 2010 12:35 am

    A co-mathematician is a machine for turning for cotheorems into ffee.

  16. October 6, 2010 12:38 am

    I am not an expert, but I always felt that athletes are somewhat expected to take drugs, otherwise they could not beat the others. I think we are really lucky that in science we don’t have to do that, although research is “for the welfare of humanity”. Imagine if institutes forced researchers to take drugs to improve their output. Maybe sacrificing the health of a few smart guys is a small price to pay for an important discovery that would help many. Why are we not regulated to take drugs then? Why don’t we make this “sacrifice” ourselves? I guess it all depends on the culture and moral values of our society.

    • harrison permalink
      October 6, 2010 8:18 pm

      I always felt that athletes are somewhat expected to take drugs, otherwise they could not beat the others. I think we are really lucky that in science we don’t have to do that

      Well, we do, but the drug of choice in the scientific community (i.e. caffeine) is pretty socially acceptable to take, at least in small quantities. Of course, you might object that we don’t require people to drink coffee, and that’s true as far as it goes. But if a mathematician were to tell me they abstained from caffeine, not out of any ethical/religious beliefs or concern for their personal health, but in order to “level the playing field,” I’d consider them a little nuts — and I suspect I wouldn’t be alone in that.

  17. asdf permalink
    October 6, 2010 12:45 am

    You can take away an athlete’s title, but you can’t deny the truth of a theorem based on the substances ingested.

    On the other hand, the community may care in general which theorems are true, but the individual usually cares also that she is recognized for her contribution. Mathematics may not be entirely a sport, but it has its “superstars” (as put in a previous post). I can see how it would be tempting to think “I could do that if only I was hopped up on amphetamines all day” out of jealousy.

  18. Colin Reid permalink
    October 6, 2010 3:10 am

    The trouble with this analogy is that athletes take drugs to give themselves an ‘edge’, not to transform themselves into superhumans. The net benefit of the drug might translate to a few percent improvement in performance. Now in a race, that’s very noticeable because the competitors’ abilities are very similar and are being directly compared. But if a mathematician got a boost in performance on the same scale and proved 11 theorems in a year instead of 10, would anyone notice the difference?

    If there were drugs that *dramatically* improved physical performance, the problems would go far beyond sport. You’d see employers in labour-intensive industries trying to force their workers to take the drug, and the regulators would be fighting a uphill battle to stop the import of goods produced by doped labour. Who knows, maybe industry would even win the political argument to allow these drugs, and we’d end up with a industrial health catastrophe that would dwarf the one caused by asbestos. A powerful cognitive enhancer could have even worse consequences socially.

    • October 6, 2010 1:38 pm

      Colin, there is considerable evidence that dystopian (?) world your post envisions already has arrived.

      Major league baseball addressed similar issues by the simple expedient of ignoring them, and at least superficially, this strategy was remarkably successful for about three decades.

      The lesson, perhaps, is that the optimal response to Dick’s post is simply to ignore it, on the grounds that the sole class of mathematicians for whom the “ignore it” strategy is manifestly sub-optimal is the class of graduate students who do not dope, yet compete for faculty positions with those who do.

      Foreseeably, the “invisible hand” of the academic market will be acting upon this class of students to make it negligibly small … and by this mechanism, the problem eventually will solve itself.

      Ought we trust the “invisible hand” in this matter? That is the key question that Dick’s post raises.

      • harrison permalink
        October 6, 2010 8:52 pm

        Actually, I’d argue (admittedly without hard numbers to back it up) that performance-enhancing drug use is *still* beneficial to baseball, in that it greatly increases the number of record chases, which chases draw considerably more attention to MLB than there would be otherwise.

        For instance: In the 89 years since Babe Ruth initially moved into first place in the career home runs statistic, his eventual total has been surpassed exactly twice: once in 1974, and once in 2006. Meanwhile, there are several active players who are very likely to surpass Ruth’s total (and maybe Barry Bonds’ as well) if their level of play continues at predicted rates. The most likely next record-holder, Alex Rodriguez, has admitted to performance-enhancing drug use, as has the current one. A similar pattern holds for single-season home run totals (although there the current record seems hard to break even for players on steroids…)

        One could argue that the upside for mathematics is similar, and that the downside is far less — how many non-mathematicians would care if it were discovered that BALCO was producing cognitive enhancers secretly for, say, Terry Tao?

      • October 7, 2010 6:30 am

        Harrison, there are many different views as to “what mathematics is for.”


        That is why it is a big mistake (IMHO) to focus on any one reason for doing math, to the exclusion of all others … because such restrictions unnecessarily diminish the domain and range of mathematics as a human activity.

        If the sole purpose of math is to prove correct theorems … then, c’mon drugs!

        Even better, simply execute underperforming graduate students … in the phrase of Napoleon words “This will encourage the rest.”

        My own view is that mathematics is an activity that 10^10 recently-evolved primates do, on an increasingly hot and over-crowded planet. Mathematics is one of these apes’ best hopes to keep their planet healthy … and their lives full of wonder and dignity.

        From this perspective, the use of performance-enhancing drugs is bad … bad in math, and bad in every other area of human striving (including baseball) … because it catalyzes a destructive Red Queen’s Race among the young.

  19. October 6, 2010 6:57 am

    Our medical school hosts a very active Sports Medicine service, and our residents swiftly learn that steroid use is ubiquitous even at the high school level. The reason is simple: steroids work. If there were no doping controls, every high-level sport in the world would be dominated by steroid users.

    Similarly, high-level math, science, and engineering are competitive enterprises; amphetamine derivatives work; and there are no doping controls whatsoever.

    Can we therefore foresee that every high-level math/science/engineering conference in the world, will eventually be dominated by amphetamine users?

    The short answer is “Yes.” The longer answer is “Already yes.” So arguably, the Nash equilibrium strategy for ambitious graduate students in math, science, and engineering is to begin using now.

    These are sobering medical realities. The long-term risks/benefits of body-doping and brain-doping are, of course, largely unknown. The addiction potential of these drugs is already high and is likely to increase in coming years, as new generations of drugs are developed.

    We teach our medical residents to be non-judgmental, and yet not to facilitate illegal drug use; obviously this is an exceedingly fine distinction.

    This post will *not* conclude by arguing for a simple resolution of these tough issues. But these issues are not coming in the future … they are with us right now … as surely as steroid abuse was ubiquitous in professional baseball during 1980-2000.

  20. Anonymo permalink
    October 6, 2010 7:23 am

    What impact would such drugs have on the employment scene for researchers?

    If the people using drugs vastly out-performed the people who did not use them, then it would make job hunts more difficult for people who did not take them.

    If the negative effects are bad enough perhaps, in the long term, “hot-houses” would develop where researchers are gathered in one place with drugs (and the necessary medical cover of the deleterious effects) provided.

  21. proaonuiq permalink
    October 6, 2010 8:10 am

    Two or more agents. Same purpose, complementary results = cooperation situation.
    Two or more agents. Same purpose, not compatible results = competition situation.
    Two or more agents. Different purpose, complementary results = exchange situation.
    Two or more agents. Different purpose, not compatible results =interference situation.

    Like it or not, science (including mathematics) is by definition a competition: some researches has the same purpose (to solve the same problem), and their results are not compatible (to be the first in solving it). Sadly, science is not a sport (the purest of competitions) since what singles out sport from any other competition is the guarantee of starting at equal conditions (except regarding the individual characteristics). In science it is possible that not all competitors start the competition with equal conditions (same information, same finance, same advisors, maybe by language not all read informative blogs as this one…). I would say that science is the hardest of the competitions: you might devote all your life to a problem, but the one who gets credit is the first who discovers the solution.

    2. Private vices, public benefits (Mandeville). I do not think that scientist work for the benefit of the society, as some has said. They work first and more importantly for satisfying their curiosity, and possibly in general curiosity comes with vanity (the wish that everybody knows how clever we are, this is why we publish) and in some cases with avarice (the wish to extract economic benefit from our result, this is why some patent). But this is good: because of our vanity and avarice, we publish and benefit the society as a byproduct.

    3. Re drugs, i won´t take it but i´m not sure if i would, if i could, forbid its use by others.
    There is a very interesting and funny book that treats many of the issues that has been treated in this blog, including the issue on drugs. Of course, the romantic concept of genius the author uses is completely outdated, as well as his theory: (sorry for this uggly link!!).

  22. October 6, 2010 8:56 am

    Erdős did believe that he needed drugs, amphetamines in particular, to enhance his abilities. I heard this while I was with Waterloo in 1980. Also I heard that Frank Harary (pioneer in graph theory) realized his dreams into solution of mathematical problems. In order to give a proper answer to your question we have to give definition of “performance” in mathematics:
    Erdös is the most productive mathematician from the point of the number of papers.
    Haken is the most productive mathematician from the point of the length of a single paper.
    Who is the most productive living mathematician from the point of solving the hard problems?

  23. October 6, 2010 10:34 am

    Of course I would take it. The goodness or badness of drugs (as taught to a junior high schooler) are completely arbitrary. For example, Ritalin is one of the worst drugs out there, but is perfectly legal and even prescribed regularly to vulnerable kids.

    • Lolo permalink
      October 28, 2010 3:49 am

      Say what you will about Ritalin, but it (along with amphetamines) has helped me give a shit about mathematics for years. To paraphrase Erdos, all I see is a blank piece of paper without them. Sure, the Erdos diet isn’t for everyone but it’s the price certain individuals pay to appreciate numbers at the same level as most mathematicians do.

  24. Vikram Chandrasekhar permalink
    October 6, 2010 10:37 am

    Thanks for the lively post – I always enjoy reading your blog.

    A tangential comment: The claim that the Tour de France is the “Dirtiest” sport as claimed by people is because cycling is among the most aggressive proponents of drug testing both on and off season (unlike many other sports).
    Hence a higher frequency of finding offenders and hence the sullied image.

  25. Drimit permalink
    October 6, 2010 10:59 am

    Mathematics itself is a drug .

  26. asterix permalink
    October 6, 2010 11:23 am

    It’s funny that people (after so long) don’t think of Erdos as having solved hard problems. For example, how many integrality gap instances have been obtained via the probabalistic method? And for many of these problems, coming up with an actual non-random instantiation of the integrality gap is still not known. So if we didn’t have the Probabilistic Method, we might all be spending years trying to come up with instances to such problems and trying to gain intuition about the respective relaxations. This is just one example.

    His work allowed us to give “easy” solutions to problems that could have been hard if we didn’t have his methods. Are there really “hard” problems, or just unsolved problems?

  27. E.L. Wisty permalink
    October 6, 2010 11:48 am

    What is the most valuable drug assisted theorem/result in the past 100 years? Was Poincare clean or assisted?

  28. MCiprianM permalink
    October 6, 2010 4:35 pm

    Mr. Lipton, it is my first post here although I read your blog for a couple of months now. Research, as you show it in this blog post is nothing more than another form of competition. I believe that a sports competition is just to show who is better at that kind of sport. But doing research is more than a competition – although competition exists among researchers. Maybe researchers should think that discoveries aren’t just for fame and glory – they are to help other people. What if an algorithm would be the key to cure cancer? Would you then think twice about taking the drug?

    • rjlipton permalink*
      October 6, 2010 9:14 pm


      Good point. I think it is competitive, but also I want to know. That is why I openly share my ideas here. I really would like to see problems solved.

      • October 7, 2010 2:32 pm

        The issue with drugs in sport is that it could diminish the enjoyment of sport for a viewer (e.g is Barry Bonds doing well because he is that good or because he is on drugs?) and lead to the wrong kind of arms race among athletes. We don’t want to encourage a system where the person with access to the better performance enhancing drug wins. The same reason is in play when we limit the horsepower of Formula 1 engines because we want to see skill and not horsepower as the determinant of success.
        In mathematics the dynamic is a little different because the competitive element is not of the same kind. It is also doubtful that a drug could have the same drastic effects as in sport. I would argue good nutrition and exercise will have a better payoff in the long run compared to drugs when it comes to intellectual pursuits.

  29. BrazilNut permalink
    October 6, 2010 6:00 pm

    In chess, as in all competitive sports, the problem with drug use is that it gives an unsuspected advantage to one side. The spectators believed that there was no unfair advantage and that victory came from talent or preparation. But if all players were allowed drugs, it would be fine, just as it is fine to organize a tournament where all players are allowed computer assistance. While omitting the moral claim that it is better if no one takes drugs than if everyone takes drugs, this says that spectator enjoyment comes from a notion of fairness.

    In math, the world only cares for the winner, not for any concept of whether the players started out equally or of fair play. Thus, the comparison with sports is tenuous at best. It then becomes an issue of an individual deciding to trade-off a heath risk versus possible recognition.

    Some may choose to. After all, mathematicians already risk their health by sitting for long stretches of time; and their social well being by working in a language few can appreciate; and their eyesight by reading small scribbles.

  30. Horowitz permalink
    October 6, 2010 6:13 pm

    A real life story: once had a valium as a sedative for a minor surgery. Woke up with this
    amazing feeling of a refreshed brain…and made a substantial progress on one problem…
    As long as there exist lonely creative volves in mathematics, some of them will
    use stimulants, either natural or “chemical”.
    BTW, Doron Zeilberger a while ago had posted a very funny, deep thing on the topic :

    • Anonymous permalink
      October 7, 2010 4:27 pm

      yes, and it was posted on April 1st, 2008 🙂

  31. October 7, 2010 1:38 am

    I think that Professor Lipton has me hooked alright. But the question is very much similar to continental philosophical question raised in his short but great book “Introduction to Continental Philosophy” by Simon Critchley that Husserl could turn any logical or mathematical texts into psychologically interpretative (phenomenological) texts. That may very well be so, but it may also be that we are looking into the telescope from the wrong end. I.e. like one of Escher’s paintings just as we are looking at the stars, by a very remote chance there might be a planet of that star that someone on it is also looking back at us. In plane terms, one might start studying Emile Artin’s books on “Gamma Functions”, “Geometric Algebra”, “Galois Theory”, and so on and suddenly find himself in bed taking Artin pills along with Haldols. The open problem is then how to return to the Artin books and set aside the drugs safely. The harder open problem is to prevent schizophrenia plaguing one’s immediate family and writings in the recursive encounters with scientific processes. And that is what attracted me in the beautiful mind of people like John Nash.

    • October 8, 2010 2:51 pm

      I almost read all the comments now. It is actually a very serious problem involving ethics and science. I was once told that another famous logician first got drunk with his students and then started drinking coffees until morning writing up proofs, theorems or problems. I first thought that it is a joke. Now, I believe it. I am totally lost as where the boundaries are set. This actually is reminiscent of a TV program some 2, 3 decades ago that gave his recollections of a physicist who worked with Oppenheimer. No wonder that there are so many problems around the world the least of which is war. Who are we putting our trusts in?

  32. Cristian Riveros permalink
    October 7, 2010 4:09 am

    I agree that finally research is not a competition. So, if you take the drug and save the world, then it will be good for all the community.

    But I think that a good related question is the following: suppose that there is a drug that if you take it, you will understand and solve all problems in mathematics and science, saving all your “lost” time in doing research. Would people have the same interest in mathematics or science? In other words, what makes science interesting? the result by itself or the time that you need to spend in order to understand and solve a problem?

  33. Colin Reid permalink
    October 7, 2010 4:43 am

    Mathematicians are certainly competing with each other for jobs, research funding, and the recognition of their peers, though I think the first two are somewhat divorced from the level of contribution to knowledge. (If it’s money you want, you’d be better off with something that made you better at ‘selling’ your area and your contribution verbally to non-experts than something that streamlined your mathematical thinking.) When it comes to the actual process of proving things, there seem to be relatively few high-profile areas where lots of mathematicians are ‘fighting’ each other to get their name on a particular theorem. The more typical situation is that the range of interesting questions greatly exceeds mathematicians’ ability to investigate them, given that there aren’t that many mathematicians with similar ideas. So I think the social dynamics of people trying to prove P != NP or the Riemann Hypothesis are quite different to those in ‘quieter’ areas. I also don’t think we’re anywhere near a ‘peak oil’ scenario where what remains to be discovered is less interesting than what is already known.

  34. Axioplase permalink
    October 7, 2010 8:09 am

    Maybe with lower reasonable incomes would athletes stop taking drugs?
    When you’re likely to earn huge amounts of money for a single cheat, it becomes very tempting. I doubt that most sportsmen would take drugs if they were just practising for fun. Pay those Tour de France riders, or Soccer stars an average 1500 Euros per month, and no free food tickets, you’ll see they won’t probably consider cheating worth (despite it may still be useful).

    • October 7, 2010 9:59 am

      Good idea!
      Let’s do the same for the bankers, they won’t cheat anymore, problem solved! 😀

  35. Anonymous permalink
    October 7, 2010 2:24 pm

    some xyz trying to be a Terry Tao by taking drugs; well – that’s not to be expected 🙂

  36. Ben Edwards permalink
    October 8, 2010 11:52 am

    I agree with the comments above that research should not be a competition, but a colloboration, and to that end a very social process. I know some people like to work in isolation, but I have the most fun doing research with people, in any variety of settings. Some of the most productive collaborations have come over beer and wine and dinner (though past a certain critical point there are exponentially diminishing returns). Should we then ban alcohol and good food?

    When individuals decide to compete, it is usually within the bounds of some rules. Everyone agrees on the rules and there are consequences to breaking them. In research there may be rules but they don’t deal with the production of the result, but rather how it is presented. If the result stands on its own, it hardly matters how it was produced. I doubt anyone would fail to accept a proof of P/=NP if the author had devised it while stoned out of their mind. No one debates Erdos’s work despite his amphetamine use.

  37. October 8, 2010 12:42 pm

    The person who solves P=NP enriches the world by increasing its store of knowledge.

    The person who wins the Tour de France receives a big reward that would otherwise have gone to someone else, and thus redirects resources to himself without substantially enriching the world as a whole. (Yes, there is some value to improving the quality of the competition, and hence the quality of the spectacle, but that value is in general small compared to the value of the prize. This is a standard result in what economists call the “theory of tournaments”.)

    So I think the two situations are far less analogous than they at first appear. Taking drugs in order to make the world a better place is very different than taking drugs to enrich yourself at someone else’s expense.

    (And yes, if you read this as an argument against allowing athletes to take drugs, it’s also an argument against allowing them to practice — good luck enforcing that one, though.)

    • October 8, 2010 1:22 pm

      it’s also an argument against allowing them to practice

      I hate sports too but you must be mistaken somewhere because the money used to pay athletes comes directly or indirectly from paying spectators who are interested in the sports, whereas the money used to pay scientists comes from taxes and the allocation of grant money is debatable if the principle is not…

  38. Jonathan Katz permalink
    October 10, 2010 3:41 pm

    There is a very relevant (and thought-provoking) article from the New Yorker on this topic from about 1 year ago:

    The article argues that cognitive-enhancing drugs will become commonplace in a generation. I can believe him: (1) as others have mentioned, research/academic achievement is not a “sport” or a competition; it simply boils down to a question of what provides the best utility (both to the individual considering whether to take the drugs as well as to society at large); (2) once enough people are doing it, it will become essential for the average person to do it just to keep up.

    Note: the above all assumes such drugs are safe to take. The jury is still out, though the current evidence suggests they are.

  39. Bobo the Payaso permalink
    October 12, 2010 2:27 am

    If the rewards for doing mathematical research well included million dollar contracts and endorsement deals, there would be plenty of fakers taking all the drugs they could to get to the top. As it is there are plenty who publish the same thing over and over again, citing their buddies all the while.

  40. October 17, 2010 11:52 am

    Alfred Tarski was also big on amphetamines.

    source: the Fefferman & Fefferman bio

  41. November 2, 2010 3:34 am

    I remember as a student hearing some B-school kids in the library saying how they did nothing all semester and then took Adirol (sp?) a week or two before finals and absorbed entire books. That sounded really nice at the time.

    I asked my Probability Theory professor what he thought. He said he never used drugs and didn’t recommend it to anyone.

    I think that’s really the reason I never tried it.

  42. September 18, 2011 8:27 pm

    I do accept as true with all of the ideas you have introduced for your post. They are really convincing and will certainly work. Nonetheless, the posts are very short for novices. May you please prolong them a bit from next time? Thanks for the post.

  43. December 2, 2012 3:50 pm

    Been there done that. Tried Salvia, weed, cannabis, xtc derivatives sold legally in tobacco stores and what not. As much as I am batting for sobriety, I would NEVER surrender to drugs to say find solution of Hodge or Riemann. There is the ego factor that if you are high possibly it is a “higher you” who did it? Also, what happens when you don’t have access? Remember Erdos quit for a while but he produced blank page.

    Society glamorizes drug for no reason. In the ancient days, sages and masters were healthy and accomplished superb things (Leonardo da Vinci was vegetarian).

    As far as creativity, well yes, drugs make you lucid for a while with juices flowing but nothing can be a replacement for sheer hard work, discipline and dotting i’s and crossing ts.

    It’s not worth it. Analogy would be: Would you (if it was possible) go to peak of Everest by a chopper or other aviation engine or would you rather take it step by step? One can use drugs or catch land on top of Everest, but nothing can be a substitute for the sheer joy and pain of climbing the mountain yourself. I mean one has to climb it to climb it.

    Thanks for opening up the discussion which is a rather tabooed nature doing more harm than good. Awareness helps.

    p.s. Sober is Sexy

  44. John_Mayor permalink
    January 1, 2016 5:16 pm

    To me, the issue of banning drugs for mental enhancement (or general physiologic enhancement) is ridiculous!… i.e., if the use of such a drug was by way of a prescription, given by way of an accredited member of a recognized medical body! Competitions be damned!… disallowing the use of any drug by virtue of the fact that a competition is at stake, is—virtually—pitting the “medical authorities” behind such a competition, against the rest of the medical community!… and who may advise, or administer, for the purposes of the competition in question! Whose opinion matters most?… the “competition authorities”?… or the “competing authorities”? Is the entire medical community in support of the banning of the use of drugs for mental and/ or general physiological enhancement? Are the use of such drugs in the general population a kind of cheat? I don’t think so! What counts here is science!… the facts!… not some pseudo-professional pecking order, dictating what’s appropriate in the administration of some competition! If it’s appropriate for such drugs to be used by the elderly– e.g.– then it’s OK for the rest of us (i.e., given the say-so, by an accredited professional!)!… and, even if some of the rest of US, are “competing”! The only concern that any “competition authority” should have, is whether the drug in use has some detrimental side effect!

    And the foregoing critique doesn’t mean that a drug-free competition is bad!… but only, that precluding “drugged competitions”– as a matter of course!– is!

    Conclusion… what is obviously needed are competing “enhancement-oriented authorities”!… on par with the Word Anti-doping Agency and International Mind Sports Association frameworks! Otherwise, we are left with a one-sided view of what constitutes excellence in competitive undertakings!… and, in society!– generally! And… who knows?… maybe such “enhancement-oriented competitions” will reveal the mechanisms within our respective, and collective physiologies, whereby, “enhancements”– someday, and ironically, and paradoxically!– can be done away with! Have a good one!

    Please!… no emails!

  45. John_Mayor permalink
    January 2, 2016 12:44 am

    P.S.: I actually I meant to say […] rather than […] Therefore, feel free to edit my submission!… as my final request! And… of course… remove this note altogether! And thank you for your consideration! […Editor: I’ve made the requested fix, and also changed all-caps to italics—no need to shout…]


  1. Cricket, 400, and Complexity Theory « Gödel’s Lost Letter and P=NP
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