Saturday, April 12, 2008

Look Who's Doping

The inimitable Dr. Z wrote in his April 1, 2008, opinion:

But I strongly disagree with the unfortunate decision to forbid the use of any result, or solve any open problem posed by, the great Paul Erdös, on the grounds that he was "doping" by using stimulants like amphetamines. While I definitely do not recommend anyone to start taking prescription drugs, mathematics is not (yet) the tour-de-France, and if we start forbidding them, what's next? coffee?. It is no coincidence that Erdös quipped that a mathematician is a machine that turns coffee into theorems. Without coffee (and unfortunately other stimulants) we would not have progressed beyond Euclid. Coffee is so much part of our culture that it would take much more than one committee to disallow it at AMS meetings.
On the same day, a press release written by evolutionary biologist Jonathan Eisen of the University of California, Davis, declared that the US National Institutes of Health is to crack down on scientists 'brain doping' with performance-enhancing drugs such as Provigil and Ritalin.

These were, of course, intended as two funny pranks. Now, however, Nature is spotlighting a study on the use of cognition-enhancing drugs by academics. (Alas, a subscription is needed to access the text.) The article in Nature reports on the results of a survey conducted by that journal on whether readers of Nature (scientists) would consider “boosting their brain power” with drugs. The article states that 1,400 people from 60 countries responded to the online poll.

Apparently "one in five respondents said they had used drugs for non-medical reasons to stimulate their focus, concentration or memory." Moreover, use of drugs did not differ greatly across age-groups. According to the article, "the numbers suggest a significant amount of drug-taking among academics." So, not only academics drink more than rest of population on average (or so I seem to recall reading somewhere recently), but they also enhance their performance by taking drugs :-) Will we soon have to sign declarations that our work was not done under the influence of performance-enhancing drugs as well as copyright release forms? Or will we have to have drug tests taken when we submit papers to conferences or journals? And will all authors of an article have to take such tests?

On a more serious note, as a parent, I was a little concerned when I read that

When asked whether healthy children under the age of 16 should be restricted from taking these drugs, unsurprisingly, most respondents (86%) said that they should. But one-third of respondents said they would feel pressure to give cognition-enhancing drugs to their children if other children at school were taking them. Morein-Zamir found this coercive factor very interesting. “These numbers strongly suggest that even if policies restricted their use by kids, pressure would be high for parents,” she says.
(The emphasis is mine.) Would you give drugs to your children to enhance their mental performance?

Sometimes I wonder what our answer would be if we were offered a Faustian pact promising that we would solve, say, two fundamental problems of our choice at the price of our "soul". What would your reaction to this "two-for-the-price-of-one" offer be? Has any science-in-fiction novel ever been written on this theme?

Addendum: After I wrote this post, Luca Trevisan pointed out to me the delightful short story "The devil and Simon Flagg" by Arthur Porges. I recommend it!


Luca said...

There is a delightful story called "The devil and Simon Flagg," by Arthur Porges, in which a mathematician summons the devil and offers the following deal: if the devil can prove or disprove Fermat's last theorem within 24 hours, the devil will have the mathematician's soul; if he can't, the mathematician will have wealth and health (and keep his soul).

I found it in the Appendix of van der Poorten's book "Notes on Fermat's last theorem," but searching on google for the title of the story leads to online transcriptions.

Luca Aceto said...


Thanks for the literary pointer! The short story is indeed delightful, and I simply had to read it straight away.

Anybody interested in reading it can look, for instance, here.

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