The Neurosociology of Caffeine: Coffee and the Rise of Science in the Western World

I have worked in four university-level graduate research labs in my lifetime--in cognitive science and physical and organic chemistries--and all of them ran on coffee. Each of these labs had organized a "coffee club" among the graduate students, which collectivized buying and preparation of coffee at a designated coffee station somewhere in the lab. Most graduate students I've known drink more than two cups a day, and almost every professional researcher or teacher I've known at least starts the day with a jumbo super-latte or some other coffee concoction.

It's true, scientific research is demanding work, at least on the mental muscles that give patience and persistence, but I think there's more to the institutional coffee jones than simply energy demand: I would go so far as to say that coffee, which may or may not be reduced to caffeine for this purpose, actively conditions the mind for scientific thought. I would not go so far as to say that science can't happen without coffee, but rather that coffee helps people who need to think scientifically do so. One almost never hears, after all, of scientists running on speed or cocaine, even though these are arguably more effective in terms of providing "psychic energy." Certainly there are good reasons why illegal drug use might exist but not be known about among scientists, but my point here is that there really aren't even many stories about this happening, whereas in other professions like trucking and the music industry at least there are persistent rumors. Culturally, various drugs are stereotyped with various professions, and for the profession of science, the drug is coffee. I don't have any good evidence to back up my hunch that coffee causes people to think scientifically, of course--just anecdote, mostly, and a set of interesting historical correlations.

Coffee, like science, comes to us from the Arab world. Coffee plants are native to the highlands of Ethiopa, and evidence of their use in Africa as stimulants dates to the 9th century CE. Italians brought the beverage across the Mediterranean in the 16th century, and it was in this same place and time (1543) that Nicolaus Copernicus published De Revolutionibus, and, by the standards of most historians of science, began the modern scientific revolution. Galileo Galilei, another Italian and a man known as "the father of modern science," appeared in 1564. From Italy, both coffee and the line of "first greats" in science migrate to England. The first English coffee shop opened at Oxford in 1652; Newton published his Principia in 1687. In fact, if we order the major European nations of the time by the opening dates of their first coffee shops, we get Italy (1645), England (1652), France (1672), and Germany (1721).

Major Events in the Introduction of Coffee to Europe

Further, if we plot the milestones of science as an arrow in space and time across the face of Europe, we find the same general ordering. Certainly there are deviations, and even if a statistically valid correlation could be proven it would still be insufficient to claim causality: It may be just as likely that thinking about science makes people want to drink coffee as the reverse, or there may be outside socioeconomic factors driving both phenomena.

In other words, my thinking on this matter is really not very scientific.

Think I'll go get another cup.

On Receiving Certified Mail

Some folks consider themselves "rational persons." I think the phrase is an oxymoron; almost everyone makes most of their decisions emotionally and uses their reason to confabulate. I'm no less guilty--indeed, probably moreso--than the next person. However, I like to think that when I recognize patently irrational decisions (that is, those that tend to minimize expected value) based on emotional impulses, I am capable of bringing them under control.

Yesterday I received one of the pink slips in my mailbox that usually means I have an oversize package waiting at the post office. Today I went to pick it up, and instead of a package was handed a certified letter from the IRS. I was immediately nervous and curious as to why the IRS would be sending me certified mail, so I quickly signed for it and rushed out of the post office to open it in the parking lot. Turns out my tax payment for the 3rd quarter was late and they're adding a $10 penalty, and they certify the notification really just as a matter of policy. It's not as if they're really going to pay a lawyer to go to court to prove that I received this letter and owe them an additional $10.

This is the third or fourth time I've received certified mail in my life, and they've all been letters I'd rather not have received. After all, the only reason people send certified letters is that they want to prove, presumably in court, that you've received whatever it is they sent you, i.e. that you are aware of the contents of their letter and cannot reasonably claim otherwise. So the very fact of receiving a certified letter lets me know it contains something I might want to someday deny having knowledge of.

So why do I keep signing for them? When you get a certified letter, the smart thing to do is to put down the pen and walk away and let the post office or mail carrier keep it. The only reason people continue to sign is that they're frightened and curious and don't want to have to worry for two weeks about what was in the letter in the first place. But you're really doing your enemies a favor by signing, and if their beef is really important you'll find out about it eventually, whether you sign the letter or not. Smarter by far to not sign and see if they go away.