What is a mathematician?

A mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems.

— Paul Erdos

Reportedly, this led a rival mathematician to remark “If so, we can deduce that Erdos drinks exceptionally weak coffee.”


A reader writes:

The quote “A mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems” is usually mis-attributed to Erdos, and should be attributed to Alfred Renyi instead.

And the follow-up I’ve always heard, attributed to the mathematician Paul Turan, is that “Weak coffee is fit only for lemmas.”

Second update Another reader points out that a programmer is a device for turning pizza into code.

News to me; I’d always heard that Orange Crush was the precursor chemical for code.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: