The following post is adapted from the new book "This Is Your Country On Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America." The letter is published with the permission of the estate of LSD-inventor Albert Hofmann. For more on events related to the book, see the Facebook page or follow Ryan Grim on Twitter.
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Steve Jobs has never been shy about his use of psychedelics, famously calling his LSD experience "one of the two or three most important things I have done in my life." So, toward the end of his life, LSD inventor Albert Hofmann decided to write to the iPhone creator to see if he'd be interested in putting some money where the tip of his tongue had been.
Hofmann penned a never-before-disclosed letter in 2007 to Jobs at the behest of his friend Rick Doblin, who runs an organization dedicated to studying the medical and psychiatric benefits of psychedelic drugs. Hofmann, a Swiss chemist, died in April 2008 at the age of 102.
See the letter here.
Written just after his 101st birthday, the letter's penmanship is impressive for a man of his years. I showed it to my grandmother, Ruth Grim, who was 8 years Hofmann's junior and did amateur handwriting analysis as long as Hofmann had been tripping. Without knowing who he was, she said in an e-mail that "something happened early in his life that made him twisted about things. Maybe he felt threatened. Also--creative with his hands, hard on himself, thinks a lot, stubborn, careful with the way he expresses himself, not influenced by other's thinking."
Doblin says Hofmann often said he had a happy childhood and wouldn't characterize him as twisted. Hofmann, for his own part, often referred to LSD as his own "problem child" and in his letter he asks Jobs to "help in the transformation of my problem child into a wonderchild."
He specifically asks Jobs to fund research being proposed by Swiss psychiatrist Peter Gasser and directs Jobs to Doblin's Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.
Doblin and Hofmann were close; Doblin gave the doctor his first tab of ecstasy in the '80s when it was still legal, he says, and Hofmann loved it, saying that finally he'd found a drug he could enjoy with his wife, no fan of LSD.
Doblin provided a copy of the letter to me; Hofmann's son, Andreas Hofmann, executor of his father's estate, authorized its publication.
The letter led to a roughly 30-minute conversation between Doblin and Jobs, says Doblin, but no contribution to the cause. "He was still thinking, 'Let's put it in the water supply and turn everybody on,'" recalls a disappointed Doblin, who says he still hasn't given up hope that Jobs will come around and contribute.
That Jobs used LSD and values the contribution it made to his thinking is far from unusual in the world of computer technology. Psychedelic drugs have influenced some of America's foremost computer scientists. The history of this connection is well documented in a number of books, the best probably being What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer, by New York Times technology reporter John Markoff.
Psychedelic drugs, Markoff argues, pushed the computer and Internet revolutions forward by showing folks that reality can be profoundly altered through unconventional, highly intuitive thinking. Douglas Engelbart is one example of a psychonaut who did just that: he helped invent the mouse. Apple's Jobs has said that Microsoft's Bill Gates, would "be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once." In a 1994 interview with Playboy, however, Gates coyly didn't deny having dosed as a young man.
Thinking differently--or learning to Think Different, as a Jobs slogan has it--is a hallmark of the acid experience. "When I'm on LSD and hearing something that's pure rhythm, it takes me to another world and into anther brain state where I've stopped thinking and started knowing," Kevin Herbert told Wired magazine at a symposium commemorating Hofmann's one hundredth birthday. Herbert, an early employee of Cisco Systems who successfully banned drug testing of technologists at the company, reportedly "solved his toughest technical problems while tripping to drum solos by the Grateful Dead."
"It must be changing something about the internal communication in my brain," said Herbert. "Whatever my inner process is that lets me solve problems, it works differently, or maybe different parts of my brain are used."
Burning Man, founded in 1986 by San Francisco techies, has always been an attempt to make a large number of people use different parts of their brains toward some nonspecific but ostensibly enlightening and communally beneficial end. The event was quickly moved to the desert of Nevada as it became too big for the city. Today, it's more likely to be attended by a software engineer than a dropped-out hippie. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google, are longtime Burners, and the influence of San Francisco and Seattle tech culture is everywhere in the camps and exhibits built for the eight-day festival. Its Web site suggests, in fluent acidese, that "[t]rying to explain what Burning Man is to someone who has never been to the event is a bit like trying to explain what a particular color looks like to someone who is blind."
At the 2007 event, I set up my tent at Camp Shift--as in "Shift your consciousness"--next to four RVs rented by Alexander and Ann Shulgin and their septu- and octagenarian friends from northern California. The honored elders, the spiritual mothers and fathers of Burning Man, they spent the nights sitting on plastic chairs and giggling until sunrise. Near us, a guy I knew from the Eastern Shore--an elected county official, actually--had set up a nine-and-half-hole miniature golf course. Why nine and a half? "Because it's Burning Man," he explained. Our camp featured lectures on psychedelics and a "ride" called "Dance, Dance, Immolation." Players would don a flame-retardant suit and try to dance to the flashing lights. Make a mistake, and you would be engulfed in flames. The first entry on the FAQ sign read, "Is this safe? A: Probably not."
John Gilmore was the fifth employee at Sun Microsystems and registered the domain name Toad.com in 1987. A Burner and well-known psychonaut, he's certainly one of the mind-blown rich. Today a civil-liberties activist, he's perhaps best known for Gilmore's Law, his observation that "[t]he Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it." He told me that most of his colleagues in the sixties and seventies used psychedelic drugs. "What psychedelics taught me is that life is not rational. IBM was a very rational company," he said, explaining why the corporate behemoth was overtaken by upstarts such as Apple. Mark Pesce, the coinventor of virtual reality's coding language, VRML, and a dedicated Burner, agreed that there's some relationship between chemical mind expansion and advances in computer technology: "To a man and a woman, the people behind [virtual reality] were acidheads," he said.
Gilmore doubts, however, that a strict cause-and-effect relationship between drugs and the Internet can be proved. The type of person who's inspired by the possibility of creating new ways of storing and sharing knowledge, he said, is often the same kind interested in consciousness exploration. At a basic level, both endeavors are a search for something outside of everyday reality--but so are many creative and spiritual undertakings, many of them strictly drug-free. But it's true, Gilmore noted, that people do come to conclusions and experience revelations while tripping. Perhaps some of those revelations have turned up in programming code.
And perhaps in other scientific areas, too. According to Gilmore, the maverick surfer/chemist Kary Mullis, a well-known LSD enthusiast, told him that acid helped him develop the polymerase chain reaction, a crucial breakthrough for biochemistry. The advance won him the Nobel Prize in 1993. And according to reporter Alun Reese, Francis Crick, who discovered DNA along with James Watson, told friends that he first saw the double-helix structure while tripping on LSD.
It's no secret that Crick took acid; he also publicly advocated the legalization of marijuana. Reese, who reported the story for a British wire service after Crick's death, said that when he spoke with Crick about what he'd heard from the scientist's friends, he "listened with rapt, amused attention" and "gave no intimation of surprise. When I had finished, he said, 'Print a word of it and I'll sue.'"
The letter from Hofmann to Jobs, transcribed below if you have difficulty viewing:
Dear Mr. Steve Jobs,
Hello from Albert Hofmann. I understand from media accounts that you feel LSD helped you creatively in your development of Apple computers and your personal spiritual quest. I'm interested in learning more about how LSD was useful to you.
I'm writing now, shortly after my 101st birthday, to request that you support Swiss psychiatrist Dr. Peter Gasser's proposed study of LSD-assisted psychotherapy in subjects with anxiety associated with life-threatening illness. This will become the first LSD-assisted psychotherapy study in over 35 years.
I hope you will help in the transformation of my problem child into a wonder child.
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Thank you for all you do for my problem child. I am pleased to add whatever I can do from my part.
I learned much from your great letter, to do things after waiting for the right moment, how clever and careful you organize and do your work.
I do hope that my letter to Steve Jobs corresponds to your expectation, especially what regards the choice of the writing paper. [Doblin had asked Hofmann to use his personal letterhead. It's not what you're thinking.] I believe that I followed your prescription.
Hopefully Dr. Gasser will be successful with his request.