The “two coffee problem”

The well-known professor I was advised to meet turned out to be a very nice, ordinary guy; neither fussy, nor self-centred. You find that often – truly talented, original, and intelligent researchers will be polite, humble, answer you e-mails kindly and promptly and will be generous in sharing their knowledge. They are also typically introverts :). It’s the ones in the division after them who need bloating and manures to emphasise their significance.

So the professor and I set off to a café nearby the conference site. I was going to buy him coffee as the least thing I could do, but I forgot that all my cash had gone to the school’s fathers’ day present bazaar and cards were not accepted. So – embarrassing as it was – he had to buy me coffee, but he was (of course) very nice about it.

It took him 30 seconds to grasp the problem I presented and he dove right into it. The code of conduct in research is that you show your interest in other people’s work by ferociously dissecting it, looking for major flaws of theory or method. The reason is that in medicine we all are aiming to approach “truth”, as defined by positivistic science: if it cannot be proved that the results are false there is a 95% chance that they are actually “true”.

Proper positivists do not use the quotation marks, those are the influence of my interest and respect for the humanities. The professor – who actually did use quotation marks when referring to the truth – wrote on a paper, gestured, and argued. He refuted himself, discussed alternatives, listened to my arguments, the few times I had any he thought worthy commenting, and dissolved them in seconds.

Somewhere in the middle he got up and said: I need another coffee, this is a two-coffee problem! An hour flew away in what seemed like a few minutes. In fact, the professor said this had been the most enjoyable thing he had done in days.

The reason is the phenomenon that Mihály Csikszentmihályi, who is of Hungarian origin of course, has coined “flow” (1975, Beyond Boredom and Anxiety). It occurs when you immerse in a problem or activity that needs all your capacity to engage in, but that you have sufficient resources to deal with, or just about. It is, in other words, the moments we spend “living on the edge”, experiencing the joy of being capably alive. The experience of flow is precious and extremely rewarding, also in a neurobiological sense. It basically makes you high.

Although my proposed idea seemed to have some important flaws, the fact that I could create a “two coffee problem” made my day.

A much simpler problem was to be solved at home. The Australian lice have seemed to find their way to our family. So off I went with the local bus to Acland street, one of Melbourne’s most famous streets, just five minutes away from us, to get anti-lice ointment. For the city girl in me it was a delight to see the liveliness of the street at 9 pm. There was a Spanish live band playing at one of the bars and people were sitting outside sipping their drinks.

In the pharmacy the woman at the counter asked which school my kids went to, turned a bit pale and muttered: Oh, oh, I better get some of that myself then. Apparently, they had a terrible lice season last winter so we probably have more nights to look forward to with plastic bags on our heads. Given the effort it takes to peal the lice eggs off one by one from the long hair of the girls, I might have some flow to look forward to tonight. If they let me start, that is…


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