Bring on the drugs

Disoriented Canadian moose after drinking two Belgian beers

The argument

The research world is a competitive place. One has to perform, innovate, create, think, sweat, concentrate, decipher, write, organize, explain, convince and argue. Not once a month, or once a week, but almost daily.

It is incumbent upon the universities that provide research facilities to optimize the performances of their researchers. One area mostly neglected by nearly all universities is the psycho-medical support of their A teams. It is an oversight that costs them many places in international rankings and may see them slide against hyperactive opponents.

The drugs

It is well-known that amphetamines (speed) enhance performance. One of the world's most prolific mathematicians, Paul Erdös (1913-1996), took speed for most of his life, and slowed down remarkably when because of a bet he had to stay off them for a month (read this). He wrote about 1,500 papers.

Sleepy mathematicians or computer scientists sometimes resort to modafinil (provigil, alertec), a drug that has some side effects but that keeps one awake during the daytime. I know many mathematicians who could use a good dose of modafinil before departmental seminars and at international conferences.

Some people, including this writer, get an alertness boost from the cheap decongestant drug, sudafed. Its active ingredient is pseudoephedrine hydrochloride. Pseudoephedrine has fallen out of grace with the law in several countries, so Pfizer is proposing a watered down and worthless version (for alertness, at least) called "sudafed pe".

The most common performance-enhancing drug is coffee. For some reason, it has become acceptable to use coffee for this purpose, but not so for the drugs mentioned above. Major commercial research labs such as Google's provide unlimited amounts of coffee free of charge to their teams. Some universities have realized the fine return on their investment (a couple of dollars per day per researcher for a huge increase in output and creativity), and are adopting the same strategy.

Nicotine is another stimulant. Many prolific writers cannot live without it. Cigarette breaks provide important triggers for the mind.

Enhanced output and creativity also comes from oxygen pumped to the mind. Nothing is better before an important speech than a brisk one hour walk. Nothing is worse for a researcher than an office building with sealed windows and recirculated, polluted and oxygen-starved air.

The proposal

Start with annual physical check-ups for all research staff.

Next, make coffee the drug of choice. Let it flow without limit, preferably the strong Italian kind, from every machine in every corridor, 24 hours per day.

Treat smokers with respect. Design breathtaking smoking areas.

To those who want amphetamines or other stimulants, the universities should provide prescriptions without the hassle of doctor's office visits.

Get rid of closed windows and fix the air inside office buildings. For example, on my campus, every building constructed after 1970 is basically useless.


Luc Devroye
School of Computer Science
McGill University
Montreal, Canada H3A 2K6