Math while not sober

For the discussion of math. Duh.

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Math while not sober

Postby 3.14159265... » Tue May 20, 2008 5:58 pm UTC

I have worked on math problems after having coffee, it is a bit different than not having coffee.

I have worked on math problems after having wine, it is a bit different than not having wine.

I have worked on math problems while high, it is a bit different than not being high.

I am quite sure everyone has done math on coffee. The wine, makes it more "elegant/classy" for me. The pot makes me go on random tangents that though usually completely useless are almost always insightful as well.

Discuss drugs & math. It is not a bad idea to do drugs for math, (see Erdos) but is it a good idea? Should it be convention? Should mathematicians get doctor prescribed illegal drugs to do math if we know it would help?
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Re: Math while not sober

Postby antonfire » Tue May 20, 2008 6:37 pm UTC

Just because Erdos did it successfully doesn't mean it's not a bad idea for most people. I'm not saying that it is, I'm just saying that one data point doesn't say much, especially since it's obviously an outlier.

I haven't gotten around to trying drugs, but I certainly have a different experience doing math when sleep-deprived (which I've been told is a bit like being on drugs).

If we allow mathematicians to be prescribed drugs just to do their job better, we'd need to allow the same thing for everyone else as well. Artists? Writers? I imagine drugs make a bigger improvement on their performances than they do on mathematicians'. In fact, I'm not that sure that drugs usually improve performance as well.

Mathematicians also face the same risks as anyone else. Addiction, dependence.


I have wondered about this. If there are drugs that improve mental (respectively physical) ability in a healthy person, allowing em to do better at eir job, which involves mental (respectively physical) tasks, why shouldn't those people be allowed to use those drugs? Shouldn't a construction worker be allowed to take steroids? Shouldn't an artist be allowed to take acid?

There are two reasons I can think of. One is that it creates an unfair advantage over others. In professions where fairness is important (e.g., athlete), this is a good reason. In others, though, this is a silly argument. What, should we stop providing people with university education because it might make them better than others at what they do?

The other reason is to prevent people from hurting themselves with drugs. I think currently the "public opinion" is that people should be given access to restricted drugs only if they need them to function, in order to prevent potentially dangerous drugs from reaching irresponsible hands. If you can't do math without drugs, you can't do math on them, so the generic mathematician doesn't need drugs. So, the "public opinion" position is that no, we shouldn't give people drugs just so that they perform better.

My own position is generally that if you want to hurt yourself or put yourself at risk, feel free, and so (whether or not the drugs are actually dangerous) people should be allowed to do whatever the heck they want to themselves. (Note that this doesn't apply to antibiotics. If you're making a very resistance strain of bacteria, you are affecting people other than yourself.) That is, people should be allowed to use mind-affecting drugs (as long as they're held responsible for their actions while on them) in all situations, regardless of the "legitimacy" of their use. I haven't thought about this terribly much, nor done much research, though, so I'm sure I could easily be swayed from this ridiculously liberal view.


Somewhere out in between is the position that drugs shouldn't just go scot-free, but that they should be distributed to people who have a use for them, like (perhaps) mathematicians and (perhaps) artists. I think I'd prefer this to the current state of affairs. Maybe it would attract more people to mathematics.
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Re: Math while not sober

Postby ++$_ » Tue May 20, 2008 8:58 pm UTC

antonfire wrote:I haven't gotten around to trying drugs, but I certainly have a different experience doing math when sleep-deprived (which I've been told is a bit like being on drugs).
Doing math while sleep-deprived is horrible. It doesn't work at all. Concepts are too fluid. When I'm really sleep-deprived, my brain automatically assigns morality judgments to everything, which is awful. For example, a function might be "evil" if it's derivative doesn't exist, or if it's not one-to-one, or whatever. The problem is, my brain then goes on to devise punishments and stuff for the evilness, and I have to pull it back to the real world.

Remind me never to do drugs, if that's what it feels like.

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Re: Math while not sober

Postby Woxor » Tue May 20, 2008 11:06 pm UTC

++$_ wrote:For example, a function might be "evil" if it's derivative doesn't exist, or if it's not one-to-one, or whatever.

Hahaha, that's hilarious. Never had that problem, myself.

Doing math in an altered state of mind is almost always less effective for me, unless you count coffee, which helps me substantially (though it also gives me stomach aches unless I'm very careful about staying hydrated). Being drunk, though, can sometimes calm me down if I'm freaking out over not understanding something; I guess you could say that drinking can help the thought process in the same way that whacking an old TV helps to keep the picture clear: usually not a good idea, and almost guaranteed to mess something up, but for some reason it occasionally helps. Also, I find odd, brief moments of clarity with just the right amount of sleep deprivation, probably for the same reason.

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Re: Math while not sober

Postby Nimz » Wed May 21, 2008 11:00 am UTC

Closest I've come to "enhanced" mathematics is doing math while on the verge of exhaustion. I don't drink coffee very often, and when I do, it doesn't help much. I've had cups of (essentially) hot wet coffee grounds and fallen asleep within an hour, so I've pretty much given up on coffee as pointless. When I am sleep deprived I don't notice much difference in how well I do my maths, except maybe a bit slower - 4 x 3 is, you know (twelve (I hear you, but how do I know you're right?)), well, um, yeah, 12. Yeah, it's 12 alright. Versus 4x3=12 when I'm not (as) sleep deprived. When I am on the verge of exhaustion, my eyes stay closed for progressively longer periods and I start to dream of wildly tangential things. Then my eyes open for a bit and I refocus, write a little bit, then my pen stops moving and I'm asleep. After I wake up and I look at what I wrote, nothing is completely bizarre, but nothing is a gem of genius (any more than my normal stuff, at any rate), either.

TL;DR: I don't drink coffee because it doesn't work on me. Sleep deprivation slows me down, but there's not a noticeable change in the quality of my maths when I'm sleep deprived. I haven't tried alcohol with maths, but don't tend to drink to drunkenness, anyhow.
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Re: Math while not sober

Postby evilbeanfiend » Wed May 21, 2008 1:39 pm UTC

antonfire wrote:Shouldn't a construction worker be allowed to take steroids?


they are, steroids aren't illegal (at least not here) they are just banned from sports (along with a number of other 'performance enhancing drugs'). of course as construction workers generally don't get any significant performance related pay there is little point in them doing this.

on sleep deprivation: my experience was that after >36 hours with no sleep i started to get paranoid. i didn't try doing any maths but certainly my coordination had deteriorated well before then. getting high made me mildly happy and may have boosted the pattern recognition parts of my brain (noticing shapes in smoke). i have certainly heard that acid can induce extreme pattern finding. so i would recommend drugs over sleep deprivation for maths (although i strongly suspect a clear head is better than both).
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Re: Math while not sober

Postby mobikwa » Wed May 21, 2008 4:57 pm UTC

Ive tried doing math while high once in my life. I sat there deriving an equation for 30 minutes just getting more and more angry and never getting anywhere. When I looked back at it later I noticed that the equation was fine the way it was and I was just too stupid to realize that. From then on drugs and schoolwork stop mixing.

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Re: Math while not sober

Postby Robin S » Wed May 21, 2008 7:09 pm UTC

Some mathematician wrote:Know your limits: don't drink and derive!
This pun rings true for me. About half a year ago, I made the mistake of participating in a drinking game the night before a hard calculus test (the material wasn't too difficult, but the lecturer prided himself in setting the most complicated problems possible whilst staying within the bounds of the syllabus). The game was "I have never..." and, being students, my fellow drinkers were choosing stupid things like "...been male". I was taking roughly a double shot of vodka each time I lost, which happened around seven or eight times in a very short time period. To make matters worse, I had also eaten a large amount of dairy food that evening - but that's another story.

Long story short, the following morning I excused myself halfway through the exam because remaining conscious was too painful, and trying to do maths at the same time was nothing short of torture.
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Re: Math while not sober

Postby segmentation fault » Wed May 21, 2008 7:26 pm UTC

ive done calculus both drunk and high and got good grades. so i dont see a difference.
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Re: Math while not sober

Postby Robin S » Wed May 21, 2008 9:03 pm UTC

Maybe it wasn't challenging enough, or you weren't drunk / high enough.
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Re: Math while not sober

Postby ispottedayeti » Thu May 22, 2008 2:20 am UTC

i remember when i was coming down off my first shrooms trip i was thinking about how neat it would be to do some calculus or something while on shrooms, but have only tried them one other time and didn't get around to it.

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Re: Math while not sober

Postby Sir_Elderberry » Thu May 22, 2008 3:04 am UTC

++$_ wrote:
antonfire wrote:For example, a function might be "evil" if it's derivative doesn't exist, or if it's not one-to-one, or whatever.


Meanwhile, ex is like superman cross-breeding with a boy scout cross-breeding with Mahatma Gandhi.
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Re: Math while not sober

Postby Cycle » Thu May 22, 2008 3:30 am UTC

As far as actually doing problems goes, like doing a problem set or a test or something, I've notices that I'm slightly worse while stoned/drunk, but usually it's nothing that really destroys me, just kind of makes me slower. Mushrooms have been known to make all thoughts completely worthless: "What's addition?" Thoughts are just way to metaphorical/artistic to do anything remotely analytic. Coffee doesn't really affect me too much, one way or the other. Speedy drugs give me a really good attention span and make it so I can keep track of a lot more stuff in my head: there's a lot of calculations (like derivatives of rational functions) that I would have to get a piece of paper sober, but can just solve in my head high. So if I'm doing a bunch of easy but "large" calculations, I guess I'm better. Unfortunately, the strong attention span really kind of ruins anything that requires creativity. I'll get stuck on one flawed method and keep trying to force it to work instead of trying something else.

Lastly, sleep deprivation is horrible for me. I start seeing all sorts of mathematical connections and relations that don't really exist. When it gets really bad, I start applying math to things that obviously don't make sense. Real crazy stuff. For an actual example: "Cooking obviously commutes with exterior derivative, that is, cooking something and then taking d is the same as taking d and then cooking. Therefore, if I say, boil an egg, there is an induced map boil* from the de Rham cohomology of a hard-boiled egg to the cohomology of a raw egg."

So all in all, I think I'd rather be sober mostly. The only exception I can think of is when other mathematicians and I are bouncing ideas off of each other, just sort of picking each other's brains but not doing anything precise. Then a good amount of alcohol/weed seems to improve things. That probably has more to do with socializing that actual mathematics I guess.

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Re: Math while not sober

Postby BeetlesBane » Thu May 22, 2008 7:24 am UTC

Robin S, I think your story serves more as a warning against doing anything demanding (mentally or physically) while hung over, not while high.

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Re: Math while not sober

Postby 3.14159265... » Thu May 22, 2008 4:08 pm UTC

I have done test both drunk and high.

Drunk was one shot of whisky. So not really drunk.

High, was pretty high, but it was an easy exam.

Robin S is right, don't write exams under any kind of stress. I wrote an organic chemistry exam with 12 hours of sleep in 96 hours due to a math convention once. Not a good idea.
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Re: Math while not sober

Postby Ended » Thu May 22, 2008 4:39 pm UTC

I've never tried maths while drunk.

Doing it while sleep-deprived, though, that's par for the course. I find that I'll be fine, happily working away, starting to get a bit tired, a bit frustrated, then it's like a little switch in my mind flicks. Everything slows down; concepts reduce to notation. I end up working very slowly, and just spend most of the time repeating stuff to myself out loud and getting frustrated. (Like "So the class number is one. So h equals one. So the class number of the field is one. So you want to use the fact that the class number is one. So now you use that the class number is one. So you need to use that the class number is one." etc.)

Coffee is good for flicking that switch back to the 'off' position.

Cycle wrote:When it gets really bad, I start applying math to things that obviously don't make sense.

Yeah, that's horrible. It happens to me sometimes when trying to get to sleep after working hard, especially if I'm feverish for whatever reason.
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Re: Math while not sober

Postby Syntax » Thu May 22, 2008 9:10 pm UTC

I do math almost exclusively on coffee.

I've done it on wine before also; it was more "amazing" and I felt more motivated than usual. It's still possible to do the math that you've already learned whilst drunk but learning new material is nearly futile.

The other day I went to my programming class after having had 2 beers and I felt like I was retarded. I thought it was supposed to help! >:(

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Re: Math while not sober

Postby 3.14159265... » Thu May 22, 2008 10:11 pm UTC

You sir, didn't drink enough.
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Re: Math while not sober

Postby Cleverbeans » Fri May 23, 2008 2:28 am UTC

WTF people still do stuff sober?? What is this 5000BC??
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Re: Math while not sober

Postby Nimz » Fri May 23, 2008 4:57 am UTC

Ended wrote:
Cycle wrote:When it gets really bad, I start applying math to things that obviously don't make sense.

Yeah, that's horrible. It happens to me sometimes when trying to get to sleep after working hard, especially if I'm feverish for whatever reason.

The worst that's ever happened to me that I can recall, my mom was trying to wake me up when I was in a deep sleep. I only remember that it happened and that what I muttered was semi-mathematical, and my mom was too busy trying to wake me up to figure out what I was saying.

Cleverbeans wrote:WTF people still do stuff sober?? What is this 5000BC??
So I take it your worldview is that this often happens in real life:
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Re: Math while not sober

Postby SlyReaper » Fri May 23, 2008 7:12 am UTC

When I'm sober and wakeful, I tend to be a rather average mathematician. I can muddle my way through problems fairly reliably. When I'm drunk, my overall ability is decreased, but I do occasionally have flashes of inspiration. Flashes that turn out to be correct too.

I've even solved tricky-bastard maths problems in my sleep. Dreamed the solution, woken up in a eureka-style moment, written it down, then gone back to sleep. They usually turn out to be correct, funnily enough.

Now all I need to do is have this happen when I'm drunk AND asleep...
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Re: Math while not sober

Postby Turambar » Fri May 23, 2008 9:17 am UTC

Two weeks ago, I took my physics final completely hopped up on caffeine. After a little while, I started thinking through the problems faster than I could write out the answers. And then I had a few minutes where there was so much energy bouncing around in my brain that I could barely focus on anything and didn't know how to let it out. But I finished it in half the allotted time and did as well as I could have hoped for.

I've done mental math while high, which actually feels good. It's like a sort of mental acrobatics. But if I have to try to hold too many different numbers in my head at once, they all run away like squirmy fish.
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