Paul Erd�s (1913-1996), "the man who loved only numbers", was one of the most brilliant and prolific mathematicians of the twentieth century. Erd�s spent much of his restless life on psychostimulants. As he once remarked, "A mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems." [some sources attribute the original quote to Erd�s' friend and fellow Hungarian mathematican Alfr�d R�nyi.]
LIFE ON BENZEDRINE
Jewish Hungarian mathematician Paul Erd�s
But Erd�s liked stronger medicine too. After his mother's death in 1971, Erd�s became quite depressed. His physician prescribed amphetamines. Erd�s took Benzedrine or Ritalin almost every day for the last twenty five years of his life. Sometimes he took both.
Long-term use of amphetamines often exacerbates depression. When used chronically, too, amphetamines usually induce stereotyped thought and behaviour rather than creativity. But Paul Erd�s seems to be an exception. He felt living on speed helped him to create maths. At an age when most mathematicians have long since burnt out, his output was certainly prodigious.
Strong dopaminergic drugs also tend to provoke or exacerbate obsessive-compulsive behaviour. Here their effect on Erd�s may be more typical. Erd�s hated to be touched; and he washed his hands some 50 times a day.
Colleagues worried that Erd�s might have become addicted. In 1979, he accepted a $500 bet from his friend Ronald Graham. Graham challenged Erd�s to abstain from speed for 30 days. Erd�s met the challenge, but his output sank dramatically. Erd�s felt the progress of mathematics had been held up by a stupid wager.
In an article by Paul Hoffman published in November 1987, Atlantic Monthly profiled Erd�s and discussed his Benzedrine habit. Erd�s liked the article, "...except for one thing...You shouldn't have mentioned the stuff about Benzedrine. It's not that you got it wrong. It's just that I don't want kids who are thinking about going into mathematics to think that they have to take drugs to succeed."
July 27, 2011
the man who loved only psychostimulants