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A mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems -- Alfréd Rényi

All the universities whose staff lounges I've been to have had coffee machines with free coffee. I've seen groups name their meetings after coffee much more than other beverages (e.g. from Google, "AstroCoffee" exists in OSU, IfA Hawaii and Goethe University; a corresponding search for "AstroTea" turns up nothing). I've also witnessed one academic telling another "I'm stuck, don't know what to do next" and the other say, quite seriously, "have some coffee! If you're still stuck, have even more coffee!"

What is it about coffee that makes it so ubiquitous in academic culture?

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    citation needed – aaaaa says reinstate Monica Jul 2 '18 at 2:21
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    I've seen "coffee lounges" far more often in companies than in universities. – Dirk Jul 2 '18 at 5:20
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    it's definitely limited to the area you live in. where i live most of the academics drink tea and call it 'tea break' and it's despite most of the professors in these universities has studied in U.S, so it might be more dependent on the traditions of the homeland rather than relating it to the academic tradition. – yekanchi Jul 2 '18 at 5:42
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    free coffee? Ahahahahahahahahahahahaha. (the "free coffee" may be paid for communally by the staff making a monthly contribution.) – Flyto Jul 2 '18 at 6:37
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    In Austria coffee is the normal drink for adults or people over 14 years (no legal restriction!) everyone is expected to like coffee and I as a no-coffee-drinker get to hear some comments why I don't drink coffee. I don't see why there should be anything special in Academia – Féileacán Jul 2 '18 at 8:09
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Academics sure do drink a lot of coffee---but do they drink any more coffee than other professionals?

According to Wikipedia, 150 million Americans adults drink coffee daily (out of about 240 million total), a rate of more than 60%. So if most adults drink coffee in America, it's entirely unsurprising that academics are like most other adults and that departments might happily supply this cheap perk---just like many, many other offices do. Similarly high rates of consumption appear to pertain in most other developed Western countries, which are also where the majority of high-impact scientific research is still conducted.

In short: many academics appear to drink a lot of coffee simply because they are typical adults in societies where most people drink a lot of coffee.

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    Given his post history, OP thinks that academics are aliens to be studied from a distance. – user9646 Jul 2 '18 at 7:17
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    On another note, I am not sure statistics about the USA explain a quote by a Hungarian researcher, especially one who died in the 70s. And implicit in OP's question is why academics drink more coffee than the norm. But of course, the fact that I am able to make this kind of comment shows that this is not a Q&A, this is a call for debate, thus not suitable for SE. – user9646 Jul 2 '18 at 7:30
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    @NajibIdrissi Shhhh! Don't expose us to the earthlings! – skymningen Jul 3 '18 at 6:50
  • It is probably also relevant that academics have desk jobs, and having a desk job makes it easier to drink more coffee, since you can have a cup of coffee next to you while working (while people with more physical jobs will usually need to wait for a break to drink coffee). – Tobias Kildetoft Jul 3 '18 at 8:20
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    Not really a rigorous study, but this may suggest there could be something to the OP's claim: nationalcoffeeblog.org/2016/09/22/… – Bitwise Jul 3 '18 at 12:09
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There are at least two possible explanations and neither involves coffee. The first is that when you try to force your brain to work it sometimes rebels and leaves you stuck. Taking a break, any kind of break can undo the knot. There are stories (and I've experienced it myself) of going to bed with a sticky problem and waking up with the answer. Your brain, generally, isn't idle. It can seek pathways more or less unconsciously.

The second reason is that in large departments the coffee is in a common room, usually with a table that a few folks can sit around and an adjacent white/blackboard. So you get a cuppa and you sit down and chat about your work. Someone else says something that strikes a chord and you have the germ of the answer. Actually, sometimes when you chat about someone else's work, the key comes to you almost unbidden.

Those who work in isolation don't get the benefit of the second solution, and I found that to be true myself. The colleagues you chat with don't even need to be deeply involved in your own research, but sometimes a hint from "out in left field" gives you the path to integrating the concepts you've been working on.

On the other hand. Coffee is good. Long unbroken hours of intense work are usually less good. Less tasty anyway.


Note that a coffee pot in your own office gives you neither of the above benefits.

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    As your answer makes obvious it doesn’t even have to be coffee. Some people drink tea, cocoa, juice or water during those breaks/gatherings. I think advantages of coffee are that it is warm, quick to make (doesn’t have to steep like tea) and has a low sugar/calorie content. – Michael Jul 2 '18 at 5:09
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    And also, sometimes an unrelated random conversation is mentally refreshing and turns out to be what you need. Or even going for a walk or game of pool. – smci Jul 2 '18 at 5:19
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    @Michael - Spot on. In fact, one could argue that it’s entirely possible to drink a soda during a “coffee break.” One dictionary even defines coffee break as "A short break from work during which coffee or other refreshments may be consumed.” – J.R. Jul 2 '18 at 10:51
  • In my Humanities years, it was also variously called a "wine-", or "beer-break." 10am (or any other time after opening) was often referred to as 'Tav o'clock' - this also extended to Engibeering students (whose club was sponsored by a brewery), and Law students, particularly those in double degrees with Art. – toonarmycaptain Jul 3 '18 at 2:18
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There are two components to your question: the actual presence of coffee, and the social aspect of talking about it.

The Social/Humorous aspect:

Coffee, and the need for it, is a memetic joke in Western culture, where the obsession and need for it is humorously exaggerated. This happens in fiction but also is a common trope in the working world, especially in desk jobs, which academia primarily is. Jokes like "Don't Talk To Me Until I've Had My Coffee" are resonant enough to have a McDonalds commercial, and appear on literally millions of mugs.

The actual usage aspect:

Coffee is the primary, non-stigmatized stimulant in wide use in Western culture. It's not even close. 90% of adults in the US consume coffee every day. I think you'd find that it is prevalent in every setting, not just academia. As a software developer, I hear this humor all the time.
Why is it so popular? Well, in a culture that celebrates visible displays of overwork, and in a profession in which both overworking and bragging about it are common (see this question, it's no surprise that it both is widely consumed (to compensate for long hours) and also widely talked about (since consuming lots of stimulants indicates that you're working really hard, of course).

tl;r: toxic culture and overwork.

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    Given that there are overwhelming health benefits to drinking coffee I find it mildly frustrating that coffee is mostly associated with toxic culture. – Konrad Rudolph Jul 2 '18 at 10:25
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    @KonradRudolph: I wouldn’t call them overwhelming. – Michael Jul 2 '18 at 12:07
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    @Michael Correct. What I mean to say was “overwhelming evidence of health benefits”. – Konrad Rudolph Jul 2 '18 at 12:16
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    Another answer says that the number who drink coffee is about 60%. The article you link to says that 90% use caffeine every day, not coffee. Caffeine is also in some soft drinks (partularly cola and Mountain Dew) and tea. – Barmar Jul 3 '18 at 20:07
  • Yes. I should have said ‘caffeine is the primary no -stigmatized stimulamt’. Good catch. Will leave unedited for posterity. – Daniel B Jul 3 '18 at 20:30
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It is nothing specific to academia. Coffee causes physical dependence. Habitual coffee drinkers feel really bad if they stop drinking it. The stimulant effects only last for 18 days once someone begins drinking coffee.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caffeine_dependence

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    Note that 300mg of caffeine in the given page is about a litre of energy drink, or slightly upwards of a pint of black coffee. Yes, you can do that three times a day, but you're unlikely to build up complete caffeine tolerance by accident. – Ulrich Schwarz Jul 3 '18 at 9:38
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Back here in Portugal we end up drinking more coffee than we should because it is a cheap, quick and a fairly acceptable excuse for socialising or having a not-so-formal meeting.

Coming back to the corporate world, coffee is more an excuse for team building and taking a break, as meetings tend to be more formal.

When I worked in Academia coffee, besides breaks, was more an excuse for building connections, meetings and making informal point of situations with other teams without going through all the formal hoops to book meetings.

So at the end of the day, while doing socialising and impromptu meetings, I ended up drinking more coffees in Academia than in a corporate setting.

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Well, coca leaves can be distilled to cocaine and that's frowned upon (even the eponymously named Coca-Cola does not contain significant amounts of it anymore), so coca leaves are banned in effigy. It would also involve chewing and be spitting and if that were within the range of etiquette, chewing tobacco would be more common. Cigarettes have worse health consequences. Ritalin requires prescriptions. Caffeine-laced or other soft drinks tend to mess with metabolism. They certainly are popular but correlated with obesity which tends to also affect mental agility for whatever reason.

Also providing soft drinks for free tends to be affordable for academic institutions in contrast to comparatively low-cost coffee.

So coffee is just a culture-compatible cheap stimulant.

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