Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Dr. Albert Hofmann (1906-2008)

Dr. Albert Hofmann died yesterday in Switzerland, at the age of 102. According to the article in the Times:

Dr. Hofmann first synthesized the compound lysergic acid diethylamide in 1938 but did not discover its psychopharmacological effects until five years later, when he accidentally ingested the substance that became known to the 1960s counterculture as acid.
I have a couple of questions. First, would you say that Hofmann "invented" acid, or "discovered" it? Based on the use of the word "synthesized" up there, I'm betting that its more accurate to say that he invented or, perhaps, created it. But I think I can see how someone could look at this situation and conclude that the compound LSD was "out there", waiting for us to "discover" it, and thus begin constructing a kind of Platonic theory of knowledge, that everything that we can know exists already, and that what we call learning is more a process of recognizing what already is and incorporating that knowledge into ourselves. But I think its clear that LSD was not discovered - it didn't exist absent human manipulation, unlike, say, plutonium. (Or most other elements.)

But later in the article, the author gives us a different perspective on how acid came to be:

It was during his work on the ergot fungus, which grows in rye kernels, that he stumbled on LSD, accidentally ingesting a trace of the compound one Friday afternoon in April 1943. Soon he experienced an altered state of consciousness similar to the one he had experienced as a child.
It seems a stretch to claim that Hofmann "invented" LSD if he did so by stumbling upon it. To me, when you "stumble upon something" that means that you found it, even though you weren't in particular looking for it. This is definitely not an act of creation or invention. But on the other hand, I feel like, historically, a lot of what we consider to be inventions are "stumbled upon" by their inventors. Contrast this with penicillin, which was discovered, but a use for it was invented. (In other words, it had "standing reserve potential.")

So did Hofmann invent LSD, or did he discover it, or both, or neither? And, likewise, did he invent a use for it, or did he discover one? Again, the fact that he "accidentally ingested" acid suggests that he probably discovered a use for it. But if we want to maintain that we can only discover what already is "out there", then it seems that we should say that he invented or created a use for acid. Maybe this is a false premise - maybe we should say that it is appropriate to label some act a "discovery" even if what is being discovered in no way existed prior to discovery. But this seems to jive against the etymology of discovery: to "dis-cover", to reveal, to make known.

OK, now for what I "find" to be the ridiculous part:

On the following Monday, he deliberately swallowed a dose of LSD and rode his bicycle home as the effects of the drug overwhelmed him. That day, April 19, later became memorialized by LSD enthusiasts as “bicycle day.”

He took acid and then rode his bicycle home? Granted, I'm sure that there were a lot less police and cars (two things everyone should be naturally afraid of) in Switzerland in the 1940s than there are now, but still - riding your bike while being "overwhelmed" by acid seems like a very bad idea. What if he hit someone? What if you got run over by someone on a bike on acid? I imagine that the ensuing conversation would go something like:

You: Hey man! You just hit me with your (expletive) bicycle!
Albert Hofmann: The owls are not what they seem.
You: What? Hey - are you paying attention to me, man?!
Albert Hofmann: I am now paying attention to you, man.
You: Good! I think you broke my arm.
Albert Hofmann: Can I put it back together again?
You: No! Ow! Stop grabbing my arm! Are you on LSD or something?!

At this point, Albert Hofmann would get a horrified expression on his face, and then run into the woods, leaving you with a broken arm and no one to sue. On the plus side, you would have a new bicycle.

Of course - being that Hofmann was the first person ever to take acid - your average pedestrian in 1943 Switzerland would probably not make the assumption that he was on drugs. Instead the conversation would probably include the line:

Sie: Haben Sie die Syphilis oder wass, mein Herr?

And then Albert Hofmann gets to come down from his trip to discover himself in a straightjacket in an insane asylum, having been successfully diagnosed with, and "treated" for, syphilis.

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