Mathematicians exist on a higher plane of abstraction than us normies, and thus seem positively odd. But in the same way that Pareto’s 80/20 principle can be applied to itself to yield an even more bizarre distribution of incomes, we can attempt to identify the most eccentric mathematician amongst a field of people renowned for their eccentricities. That most eccentric person could easily be said to be Paul Erdos.
Erdos was prolific (he collaborated with over five hundred people, and he had a hand in the writing of roughly 1500 mathematical papers) and he was also severely non-normal. Examples abound in Paul Hoffman’s The Man Who Loved Only Numbers (highly recommended) and in this Time feature: having no actual home, depending on friends to manage his voluminous correspondence and keep his fees from lectures, cutting a grapefruit with a blunt knife, initiating odd physical contests and failing miserably in them, incentivising the solving of mathematical problems via the promise of cash prizes, working with multiple people at the same time around the same table but on completely different theoretical problems, running into walls, developing his own vocabulary, shaking his hands dry instead of using towels or paper, and regularly taking amphetamines. Concerning the drug use, Wikipedia says:
“His colleague Alfréd Rényi said, “a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems”, and Erdős drank copious quantities (this quotation is often attributed incorrectly to Erdős, but Erdős himself ascribed it to Rényi). After 1971 he also took amphetamines, despite the concern of his friends, one of whom (Ron Graham) bet him $500 that he could not stop taking the drug for a month. Erdős won the bet, but complained that during his abstinence, mathematics had been set back by a month: “Before, when I looked at a piece of blank paper my mind was filled with ideas. Now all I see is a blank piece of paper.” After he won the bet, he promptly resumed his amphetamine use.”
Prodigious minds using drugs to accumulate insight and advance their understanding isn’t a new thing. A while back Naval Ravikant tweeted that “A future society may support overclocking brilliant young scientists with mental performance enhancing drugs to get more scientific breakthroughs.” But the hundreds of replies were quick to point out that this was already a practice of the past and the present—John Backus cited Voltaire’s forty cups of coffee a day and Freud’s cocaine habit and devilscompiler pointed to the use and utility of LSD and psychedelics. I myself have felt the benefits of the tactical use of caffeine—a black coffee whilst reading and another as I begin to write is standard fare for a reason…
Yet, recently, I have been wondering about “overclocking the mind”. Not so much its merit—that is clearly apparent, though probably better suited to the realm of outer truth than inner truth, as I argue in Near-Deathness—but more about its different kinds. For example, I’ve heard it said that the peak of a physicist’s intellectual capacity occurs somewhere between thirty and forty years old. I suspect that that is held to be the case because it has to do with computational capacity—the brain reaches its zenith during that window and can engage in the most intense of computational tasks. But there is more to overclocking than the ability to compute. Caffeine and cocaine will heighten the velocity of the mind’s operations; LSD and other psychedelics, as well as sensory deprivation, will distort the diversity of its perceptions. Are there more ways to overclock, outside of the willful distortion of the velocity of the mind and the diversity of its perceptions? I think so, and my candidate for a third kind of overclocking is longevity.
Consider the information concerning life expectancy over time. In the paleolithic era, it was lucky to make it to forty years old. In the modern world, not making it to forty is a tragedy. Making it to fifty or sixty is practically a given in the developed world. And in the future? According to current estimates, a large number of my generation (I’m twenty-seven) will live over a century. This isn’t because of any radical biological changes. It’s due to advances in general standards of living and technological leaps in our ability to prevent and repair the wear and tear of everyday life. How does this contribute to overclocking?
A large number of people living to over a hundred with the capacities of their minds intact will have unprecedented consequences. Take the idea of the differing meaningfulness of an instant—the fact that every person interprets each moment in unique ways according to the nature, nurture and torture they’ve been subjected two. Add to that the fact that now more than ever, we have tools that put a large amount of information about the world and its mechanisms in readily accessible places. The result? Increasing longevity and increasing technological capacity will compound and combine to yield unimaginable understanding and insight.
Imagine if an Einstein or a Feynman lived to be a century old whilst retaining the power of their mind. Further, imagine that they had the technological aids we have today. How far up the never-ending pyramid of understanding would they ascend? How far up it will we ascend in the future?
Overclocking the mind is a component of the past, and the present, and it will be a component of the future. But up till now, overclocking has been confined to its velocity and its perception, and has been a strictly individual affair. But as society advances and the general standard of living rises, the overclocking of the mind—via longevity—will be a collective concern. It will affect us all.