In the spring of 1943, a Swiss chemist named Albert Hofmann was crystallizing a few centimeters of lysergic acid diethylamide when he accidentally got some on his finger, puncturing slightly the membrane between reality and La La Land. He wrote a memo to his boss:
I was forced to interrupt my work in the laboratory in the middle of the afternoon and proceed home, being affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed . . . I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.
That's scientist-speak for "It blew my freaking mind, man."
Hofmann had stumbled onto the color-exploding, time-eroding, eyelid moviemaking drug LSD-25, accidentally launching a thousand trips. He died on Tuesday, at the respectable age of 102, which likely blew a few minds at the DEA.
His discovery would influence some of the greatest thinkers, artists, writers and musicians in modern America. It would also make one of your neighbors (or college hall-mates, or, God forbid, your parents) unbearably annoying, and cause hours of frustration for generations of kids trying to synch up Dark Side of the Moon with the MGM lion's roar before The Wizard of Oz.
Which was always the problem with LSD: It had so much potential, but all it did was lie around on the sofa staring at the ceiling.
Sometimes LSD lent insight, clarity, a look at something other-worldly and spectacular.
A batch of Monterey Purple turned a young guitarist named Jimi Hendrix into a magician. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs told a reporter his LSD use was "one of the two or three most important things" he has ever done. Nobel prize winner Francis Crick told friends LSD was behind his discovery of the double helical structure of DNA.
On June 12, 1970, Doc Ellis pitched a no-hitter for the Pirates, zonked out of his gourd. "The ball was small sometimes, the ball was large sometimes," he said in an interview years later. "Sometimes I saw the catcher, sometimes I didn't."
In his book The Doors Of Perception, Aldous Huxley described the brain as a reducing valve, in which the senses send an overwhelming flood of information and the brain filters that information down to a trickle it can manage. The trickle is good enough for survival. But what if LSD could open the spout, let the water pour?
Alan Watts — the philosopher who said "No one is more dangerously insane than one who is sane all the time" — wondered if LSD removed "certain habitual and normal inhibitions of the mind and senses, enabling us to see things as they would appear to us if we were not so chronically repressed."
Just as LSD was turning on the masses, the government decided a bunch of kids having sex and considering flowers for hours was not a good thing. By Woodstock, in '69, babies named Moonbeam and River sprang from wombs into a world that was already coming down. Soon enough, Ann Landers was hysterical about the hallucinogenic threat.
For a few years, the champions of LSD searched for what came next. Ken Kesey wanted to move "Beyond Acid," to sculpt a new satori from an old surf.
But the next never came, so heads recycled the moment of magic, over and over, which may explain the, like, 420 Grateful Dead cover bands. LSD spawned genius and originality, but it also inspired decades of copy artists, awful music and tie-dyed fashion until the '60s became cliche.
By the '80s, kids in elementary school were wearing Just Say No! ribbons and marching in antidrug parades and drawing posters that explored the ill effects of drugs in Magic Marker.
In the end, free love didn't last, and mothers put away their fringed leather jackets and granny boots. They talked, yes, as we ate our vegetables, about going back someday, back to upstate New York or Palo Alto or wherever that something special had happened.
Now we recognize the old hippies by the toes poking out of their sandals, rough toes, like they have kicked rocks. They wear hair that has been washed in ponds and smells of incense and sunshine, but the smell is weaker now.
Another generation has tried to return, but their dreadlocks look manufactured. And there are easier drugs to score down the hall, in their parents' bathrooms.
Albert Hofmann's death almost looks like an LSD bookend. (Can you see it, dude? It's right there. Tilt your head a little.) A report from 2007 suggests adolescent LSD use has been dropping since 1996, while the number of students who check "drug unfamiliar" is rising. Researchers call it "generational forgetting." Barely 2 percent of high school seniors claim to have dropped acid.
That 2 percent is sitting on the couch, staring at the snow on television, watching the static.
Researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8650.