BASEL, Switzerland -- When Kevin Herbert has a particularly intractable programming problem, or finds himself pondering a big career decision, he deploys a powerful mind expanding tool -- LSD-25.
"It must be changing something about the internal communication in my brain. Whatever my inner process is that lets me solve problems, it works differently, or maybe different parts of my brain are used, " said Herbert, 42, an early employee of Cisco Systems who says he solved his toughest technical problems while tripping to drum solos by the Grateful Dead -- who were among the many artists inspired by LSD.
"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," said Herbert who intervened to ban drug testing of technologists at Cisco Systems.
Herbert, who lives in Santa Cruz, California, joined 2,000 researchers, scientists, artists and historians gathered here over the weekend to celebrate the 100th birthday of Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who discovered LSD here in 1938. The centenarian received a congratulatory birthday letter from the Swiss president, roses and a spontaneous kiss from a young woman in the crowd.
In many ways, the conference, LSD: Problem Child and Wonder Drug, an International Symposium on the Occasion of the 100th Birthday of Albert Hofmann, was a scientific coming-out party for the drug Hofmann fathered.
"LSD wanted to tell me something," Hofmann told the gathering Friday. "It gave me an inner joy, an open mindedness, a gratefulness, open eyes and an internal sensitivity for the miracles of creation."
Bent with age but still eloquent, Hofmann said he hoped the symposium would encourage the renewed therapeutic and spiritual use of LSD in supervised settings.
Lysergic acid diethylamide, a derivative of lysergic acid found in the alkaloids of the ergot grain fungus, has been illegal worldwide since the mid-1960s and still generates controversy. The conference was picketed Saturday by a splinter group from Scientology opposed to drug use.
The storied history of LSD as a mind-expanding tool began five years after Hofmann discovered LSD-25, and had what he described as a "peculiar presentiment" compelling him to resynthesize the drug. Without ingesting the substance, Hofmann managed to accidentally absorb enough of the chemical to experience its effects. In a second intentional trip, Hoffman said he had a frightening experience that gave way to feelings of rebirth.
During the 1950s and 1960s, LSD was found to be a promising tool for psychiatry and psychotherapy and was studied by the CIA as a potential interrogation weapon. It was criminalized after it escaped from the lab to be widely embraced by the youth culture.
Hofmannn said millions of people have taken LSD, but some had bad reactions when they took counterfeit drugs. He would like to see a modern Eleusis, the ancient Greek site that held the rituals of Eleusinian Mysteries which took place for two millennia beginning in 1500 BC. During the LSD symposium, mythologist Carl P. Ruck and chemist Peter Webster presented their research suggesting that an ergot preparation was the active ingredient for the Kykeon beverage used during the ritual.
"When Hofmann synthesized the chemical in LSD, he stumbled upon a 4,000-year-old secret," said Ruck, author of Road to Eleusis.
In 1958, Hofmann was the first to isolate the psychoactive substances of psilocybin and psilocin from Mexican magic mushrooms (psilocybe mexicana) which were among a variety of sacred plants used around the world to invite ecstatic and spiritual experiences.
The United States Supreme Court is now considering an appeal brought by the New Mexican chapter of the Uniao do Vegetal, or UDV, which uses the outlawed ayahauska brew in its ceremonies and cites the Eleusinian Mysteries as a precedent for a psychoactive Eucharist.
At the symposium, presentations of electronic trance music and psychedelic art by painter Alex Grey encouraged meditative and spiritual reflection for participants -- especially those in altered states of consciousness.
Participants eager to describe their modern-day spiritual LSD experiences were encouraged to contribute to a library of drug experiences on the Erowid website. Earth and Fire Erowid, who operate the site, presented a sampling of comments at the symposium and documented the two to five known deaths that have been associated with LSD.
Geri Beil of Cologne, Germany, who attended the symposium, recalled his own ecstatic LSD experience on an Indian beach on New Year's day, 2000. "I was crying from happiness, so thankful to my parents that they created me," said Beil. "This experience has not disappeared; it has had a lasting effect."
Like Herbert, many scientists and engineers also report heightened states of creativity while using LSD. During a press conference on Friday, Hofmann revealed that he was told by Nobel-prize-winning chemist Kary Mullis that LSD had helped him develop the polymerase chain reaction that helps amplify specific DNA sequences.