June 7, 2005

Fuel for Theorem-Producing Machines

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at June 7, 2005 1:32 PM

Matthew Yglesias points to a review of a book on the history of coffee. The idea that the arrival of coffee in Europe contributed to the intellectual activity of the Enlightenment is new to me, but intriguing.

Wild argues that the creative output of the movement's greatest artists and thinkers might have been significantly less if they'd been fans of sloth-inducing ale instead of energizing coffee. The Royal Society, for example, a group of pals who gathered to slurp coffee and discuss alchemy at an Oxford café named Tillyard's, was later responsible for publishing the works of its chairman, Isaac Newton. The Coffee Club of Rota met in Westminster at the Turk's Head, where luminaries such as Andrew Marvell and Samuel Pepys discussed and promoted new political concepts, including the early adoption of the modern ballot box. In France, meanwhile, Voltaire was reputedly downing between 50 and 72 cups of coffee a day, a habit that many link to the brevity and mania of Candide.

There are times when I worry that my caffeine habit is harmful, but this makes me feel better. Hey, I'm not as bad as Voltaire! Or maybe I should aspire to Voltaire's level. (Right now I'm only at one or two espresso shots a day.) I'm also reminded of this old Brad DeLong post indicating that this tradition continues in modern academia.

(It occurs to me that Neal Stephenson alluded to coffee's role in the Enlightenment at points in The Baroque Cycle.)


As you allued, "A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems." (Paul Erd\"os)

You still don't drink as much coffee as I was already drinking my frosh year. I started drinking coffee when I was something like 8 or 9, which I suppose says a lot.

I'm thankfully nowhere near Voltaire either, although _Candide_ is a way cool book.

Posted by: Mason | June 7, 2005 3:11 PM
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