Either of two Hungarian mathematicians, Alfr√©d R√©nyi or Paul Erd≈ës, is reputed to have said, “A mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems.” The quotation brings to mind solitary toil, but with equal justification you could also say, “Coffee is a device for turning conversations into theorems.”
Artur Ekert, who directs the Centre for Quantum Technologies at the National University of Singapore, evidently believes in coffee’s catalyzing effect. When the center was established three years ago, Ekert insisted that it include a space, the Quantum Café, where staff could meet and exchange ideas over free coffee or tea.
Ekert’s enthusiasm for social interaction was shared by Fred Hoyle. In the mid 1960s, when he directed the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University, Hoyle commissioned a new building. The design sounds boringly simple: little more than a long, one-story box with outward-facing offices on either side of a central corridor. But it was conceived to foster conversation and collaboration. The corridor was deliberately broad; in the center of the building was a large open area for having coffee; and lest the staff fail to meet for coffee, an institute-wide coffee break took place at 11am each weekday.
As a graduate student at the institute, I must have enjoyed a thousand or so coffee breaks. I can’t remember any theorems or ideas those casual conversations produced, so, as evidence of their effectiveness, I’ll have to invoke a substitute (and one that might not have involved coffee; I can’t be sure):
In 1950, while working at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the physicist Enrico Fermi had a casual conversation while walking to lunch with colleagues Emil Konopinski, Edward Teller and Herbert York. The men discussed a recent spate of UFO reports and an Alan Dunn cartoon facetiously blaming the disappearance of municipal trashcans on marauding aliens.
The conversation, quoted here from Wikipedia, prompted Fermi to estimate over lunch the likelihood that Earth had been visited by aliens, given the size of our galaxy, the number and age of its stars, and other physical constraints. After concluding that aliens must have dropped by many times, he asked his lunch partners, “Where are they?” Fermi’s question became the basis of a field of inquiry known as the Fermi paradox.
I can’t claim to have founded a field, but I can say that the idea for this blog entry came to me yesterday while drinking an espresso in the Quantum Café.