LSD, Magic Mushrooms, and Scientists on Drugs

LSD, Magic Mushrooms, and Scientists on Drugs
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It is often mused that psychedelic substances open doorways to new dimensions and novel trains of thought. Given this common stereotype, one might reason that drugs such as LSD, marijuana, and mushrooms would be very popular within the scientific community, whose very mission is to push the bounds of human knowledge and potential. Hard data on this assumption is lacking, but certain influential scientists of the past have provided some interesting anecdotes.

In 2004, the Daily Mail speculated that Francis Crick conceived of DNA's double-helix shape while high on LSD. At the time, the article caused somewhat of a stir around the Internet. But as deliciously intriguing as the story is, it's simply not true. The real story, as reported by Crick biographer Matt Ridley, is much less sensational.

Crick did, in fact, experiment with LSD, but not until 1967 when he was given it by one Hentry Todd. Almost all of Crick's breakthroughs in molecular biology, including the discovery of the structure of DNA, were made in the 1950s, well before he had access to LSD.

Other noted scientists were more up front about their drug use. Chief among them was American psychologist Timothy Leary. In 1960, when he was a lecturer at the University of California-Berkely, Leary traveled to Cuernavaca, Mexico and consumed psilocybin mushrooms for the very first time. The mind-altering experience was a life changer for Leary, who later said, "I learned more about... my brain and its possibilities... (and) more about psychology in the five hours after taking these mushrooms than... I had in the preceding 15 years of studying and doing research in psychology."

After the trip, Leary dedicated much of his time and research to showing that psychedelic substances, when used in stable settings and under the supervision of psychologists, could alter behavior in positive ways. His efforts didn't gain much traction at the time. Leary eventually ran afoul of the law and, to put it mildly, went a tad daffy. He passed away in 1996 and unfortunately missed out on all of the recent research touting the benefits of his beloved magic mushrooms.

Paul Erdos, the most published mathematician in history, mirrored Leary's love for psychoactive substances, especially in the later stages of his life. His amphetamine use worried many of his friends, and eventually one of them bet the eccentric Erdos that he couldn't stop taking them for a month. Erdos quit cold turkey, and at the end of the month he told his friend, "You've showed me I'm not an addict. But I didn't get any work done. I'd get up in the morning and stare at a blank piece of paper... You've set mathematics back a month." He  immediately resumed taking amphetamines.

Of all the scientists who used drugs, Carl Sagan undoubtedly remains the most prominent. He was both a common user and advocate of marijuana. In 1969, Sagan lent his expressive eloquence and communicative grace to the publication Marijuana Reconsidered. In his essay, written under the pseudonym "Mr. X," Sagan concluded:

"...the illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world."

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