Coffee into Theorems

coffeeHungarian mathematician Alfred Renyi famously said that “a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.” (The quote is often attributed, incorrectly, to Renyi’s much more famous colleague, Paul Erdos.) I, like Erdos, am an avid drinker of coffee, albeit a less prolific producer of theorems (but not for lack of trying). More importantly, I enjoy doing my work in coffee shops. It provides a sense of being connected to the world, and lots of coffee, while still being calm enough to get some work done. But not all coffee shops are created equal, so in this post, I would like to describe some essential features of a good “work” coffee shop.

  1. Free wifi. Because one may need to compute something in the Sage Math Cloud, look something up on MathSciNet or Wikipedia, and of course check email and facebook regularly, just in case something happened while you were mathing. Some people do not require wifi as much as I do, and in fact, as I just mentioned, it can sometimes be a distraction. But for me, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.
  2. Outlets. Because there is nothing worse than your computer dying in the middle of a computation or your LaTeX typing.
  3. Large tables. Because (as pictured above) it is important to have enough room to spread out. And to still have enough room for your coffee.
  4. A coffee shop buddy (also pictured). I often go by myself, but I enjoy the experience more when I have a buddy. Usually all we do is work, but I enjoy sharing my excitement when my computations work out (as I did repeatedly with my friend Lydia – a historian – a few days ago), and to have someone to chat with when you need a little break. But a buddy is most important while grading. Then when complain, moan, and cry about how terrible you feel that your students didn’t learn anything in your class and how that makes you the worst professor in the world, someone is there to bring you back to reality and feel better about yourself.
  5. Good snacks (optional). This is really not that important to me, but if you’re doing a long coffee shop stint it’s sometimes nice to have a good cookie or piece of cake to give you the necessary carbs for theorem-making.
  6. Not-too-loud patrons. This is harder to predict, but some coffee shops tend to be louder and more attractive to people who just want to socialize, and that can be distracting. But this can happen anywhere, and you just have to accept it. This is not your living room or your office, so you don’t get to dictate how people behave.
  7. Most important of all: GOOD COFFEE. 

I do want to say that another thing that is important is to be a good coffee shop citizen. You want to purchase things and not be a free-loader (don’t just nurse that one cup of coffee for five hours). Anyway, I was on break last week and got loads of math done. I got unstuck on a problem I’m working on and was able to make good progress. And most of this awesome breakthrough came while I was sipping coffee at a coffee shop in town with one of my friends. So I highly recommend this practice, and you should be safe if you follow this list when you pick your working coffee place.

If you have any other suggestions for picking a good coffee place to work, please share in the comments below. I know some of my friends like to work at bars, or outdoors, so suggestions for other places that lead you to good work are also welcome.

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8 Responses to Coffee into Theorems

  1. Moloy De says:

    Preparing a good coffee (to my liking) is easy. But cracking a satisfactory problem is in a way lot tougher. I dream a lot about both though.

  2. Andrew Gillette says:

    This seems like a good place to recall the famous math joke:

    What do you call a machine for turning theorems into coffee?

    A co-mathematician.

  3. Marvin D. Hernandez says:

    Earplugs can be handy if the noise level gets a bit much.

  4. Barbara says:

    My favorite, which fits most of your description (I didn’t check for outlets) is this one. The high ceilings contribute to minimising the patrons’ noise, as well as the fact that it’s located in Northern Italy.

    It has two characteristics I found missing on your list: it’s very light, with large windows, and incredibly beautiful.

  5. Berk Idem says:

    There is this list of cafes where one can think by Ariel Rubinstein and it includes cafes all over the world.

  6. spain engineer says:

    good post and deeply original, it looks too mathing way of life. I wolud rather silence and no problem, and keep on studing in calm perhaps after a “good” running time and if it works , continue with coffee

  7. spain engineer says:

    I advive a url to visit ( it´sure you knew it)
    http // weusemath

    The most common question students ask math teachers at every level is “When will I use math?” is a non-profit website that helps to answer this question. This website describes the importance of mathematics and many rewarding career opportunities available to students who study mathematics.

    Happy meeting ¡

  8. Alberto Gandolfi says:

    In relation to this, I have an historical puzzle: Archimedes was probably the greatest mathematicians, or one of the greatest anyway. This leaves two possibilities: either he knew coffee, or there are alternative fuels for producing theorems. I don’t know.

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