8 Human Breakthroughs That Wouldn't Have Happened Without Drugs
I've spent a fair amount of time around stoners, and there's no denying that they can be a creative bunch of people. What a pothead can pull off with a half bowl of hummus, leftover pizza crust, and a barely-functioning microwave is truly astounding. However—aside from finding innovative ways to remedy the munchies—they're usually not the type to make major, world-changing discoveries.
But there are always exceptions. While most stoned breakthroughs involve MacGyvering a bong out of everyday household objects, every now and then, illicit substances have led to some tremendous breakthroughs. Prepare to have your mind blown.
1. LSD paved the way for personal computing
Before he ran the company that would bring computers to the masses, Steve Jobs was your typical college hippie. In other words, he dropped out, but hung around campus to get high and score acid. This side of the famed CEO might seem at odds with his future perfectionist, workaholic tendencies, but according to Jobs himself, taking LSD and smoking pot was actually the key to unlocking his creativity. It would explain those trippy-ass iMac colors, at the very least.
Others, like Kevin Herbert of Cisco, claim that taking a couple ethereal jaunts throughout the year helps to conceptualize solutions to problems Silicon Valley engineers run into in their work. Even Bill Gates, who still won't cop to weed use, admits that he dabbled in LSD in his younger days.
2. LSD also unlocked our understanding of DNA
Even if you're not a biologist, you get that DNA is a big deal. Case in point: if we didn't know how it worked, we wouldn't have Jurassic Park. That's just not a world I want to live in.
The guy we have to thank for such advances is Francis Crick, the Nobel Prize winner who first identified the double-helix structure of DNA. Crick was very into LSD, and told colleagues that he made his major breakthrough thanks to an acid trip. Later, Kary Mullis, the dude who invented the polymerase chain reaction (it's what makes cloning possible) stated that he didn't think he would have been able to do it if he didn't use the drug.
3. Your math textbook is basically Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Remember the Pythagorean Theorem? All together now: A-squared plus B-squared equals C-squared. It's a good thing they drilled that one into our heads during math class, or else we'd all be screwed whenever we needed to calculate the missing angle of a triangle. How embarrassing!
Most of us only know Pythagoras for that contribution, but it turns out that his life was pretty rock 'n' roll. When he wasn't writing your eventual high school curriculum, he was hanging out with more weird religious cults than an impressionable young actor. His time among the mystics involved a lot of psychotropic drug use. Pythagoras saw drugs as a gateway to greater understanding, and, like the counterculture icons of the '60s, had devoted followers, some of whom thought he was a wizard.
In more recent history, Ralph Abraham, a mathematician who's been involved in expanding the ways we discuss and explore the subject, explained that his use of psychedelic drugs has been a major factor in his ability to generate new ideas.
Dropping acid and doing math seems like an odd way to party, but hey, not everyone likes Pink Floyd.
4. Frankenstein came to Mary Shelley in the middle of a bender
If there's a hideous monster more famous (and profitable) than Dr. Frankenstein's creation, it's only because Donald Trump exists. When Mary Shelley penned the novel about a mad scientist who creates a living being, she paved the way for dozens of films, rip-offs, and whatever you want to call I, Frankenstein.
And she got the idea because she and her friends were messed up on drugs. She'd been spending the summer in Geneva with her future husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and some other classy lit friends, mostly drinking wine and taking laudanum, a liquid form of opium. This less-than-sober state gave her the bad dream that inspired the novel.
5. Philip K. Dick wrote all your favorite sci-fi stories, took all the drugs
Blade Runner. Total Recall. Minority Report. Total Recall again.
Even if you've never read a Philip K. Dick novel or story, you know his work simply by the classic movies it inspired. Dick wrote about conspiracies, paranoia, and the way in which the reality we live in is a lie. In other words, the literary equivalent of a stoner's rantings.
This should all make sense, since Dick's ideas had a lot to do with the ridiculous amount of drugs he experimented with. Throughout his life, Dick used amphetamines, weed, acid, mescaline, and PCP. His heavy intake fueled his creativity, but also made him just as paranoid as his characters, convinced that the CIA, Richard Nixon, and a giant metallic face in the sky (really) were out to get him.
Remember that line from Blade Runner? "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe." Yeah, no shit, dude.
6. Carl Sagan used weed to solve problems
In the unforgettable words of James Franco from Pineapple Express: "Space. . ."
Carl Sagan made a career expressing pretty much the same opinion. And that's not the only thing these two have in common. Sagan was also a major pothead.
In an (at the time) anonymous contribution to Marijuana Reconsidered, he went into great detail about just how awesome it is to be high. Along with insights like "It amplifies torpid sensibilities" and "Gives a kind of existential perception of the absurd," which is basically academic-speak for "It, like, opens your eyes, even ones you didn't know you had, man," Sagan also explained that he had used marijuana to help him work through problems in his own research, and to come up with philosophical concepts that he later put to use in speeches and lectures.
Now that weird-ass ending to Contact makes a little bit more sense.
7. Cocaine gave us psychoanalysis
Sigmund Freud is the man behind psychoanalysis, popular dream interpretation, and tired jokes about phallic innuendo. He was also so into cocaine that he would have put Scarface out of business. Freud used the wonder drug to stimulate his mind, overcome social awkwardness, and write love letters with lines like, "I will kiss you quite red and feed you till you are plump...and if you are forward you shall see who is the stronger, a gentle little girl who doesn’t eat enough or a big wild man who has cocaine in his body."
All that power powder had the effect of making Freud super-productive, though, leading him towards the insights that would serve as the basis for conventional psychotherapy.
8. Edison drank lots of cocaine wine. Maybe too much.
We have to excuse Freud for taking more cocaine than the entire cast of The Wolf of Wall Street. Back before we knew how it affected the body, the drug was often an ingredient in everyday products. That's how we got Vin Mariani, a coke-laced wine that became so popular Pope Leo XIII actually appeared on a poster promoting it.
Thomas Edison was a fan, too, using the drink to stay up later and get more done. As a result, we got inventions that completely revolutionized the world.
This is the man who said, "There is no substitute for hard work." Apparently hard drugs didn't hurt, though.
Joe Oliveto is a staff writer for Supercompressor. He gets surprisingly little use out of the Pythagorean Theorem in everyday life. Follow him on Twitter.
Want more of the Culture you actually care about delivered straight to your inbox? Click here to sign up for our daily email.