My pieces fall into these three broad categories:
Math and Science
THE ESSENCE OF MATHEMATICS IS FREEDOM, AS GEORG CANTOR SO PITHILY PUT IT. IT’S ALSO JOY, MEANING, PLAY, POWER, AND AWE.
Skeptical? It’s understandable: Too many of us feel shut off from the joy of mathematics, having been convinced in school that math is nothing but an infinite ladder of ever-more-complicated rote calculations, with the test of one’s intelligence being the ability to climb its greasy rungs. This mind-numbing view of math wounds so many of us, cutting us off from our mathematical selves and depriving us of confidence in our innate ability to find meaning and structure in the world.
My goal in writing about mathematics is to help heal those wounds just a little bit, and to allow all of us, the mathematically injured and uninjured alike, to play together in that free world of mathematics. Whether you’re a mathematician or someone who has avoided math since sixth grade, you can look at the world through a mathematical lens and see the beauty and meaning that is revealed.
Here are a few of the stories I’ve delighted in: A computer program plays poker according to mathematical rules — and beats the best human players. A mathematical analysis of baseball shows that players can run the bases faster by following a curvier path that perhaps no professional baseball player has ever run. The number of different ways to tie your shoelaces reveals the deepest structures of the universe.
Here’s a more extensive list, including both math and more general science stories:
New York Times:
- Alexander Grothendieck, Math Enigma, Dies at 86 What an honor it was, to write the obituary for a man who was an utter giant of mathematics. He transformed the way many mathematicians approached their research, according to his unique vision. (November 14, 2014)
I’m a contributing editor for Discover. Here are a few of my favorite stories for them:
- Fatal Cancer Threatens Tasmanian Devil Populations A voracious cancer threatens to wipe out an iconic Tasmanian species and destabilize the island's ecosystem. Can biologists trick the disease into taming itself? (March 31, 2014)
- The Mystery of Extraordinarily Accurate Medieval Maps Beautifully detailed portolan charts present historians with a puzzle: How were they made? A mathematical analysis offers some clues. (May 27, 2014)
- Building a More Secure Electronic Voting System Computer scientists design an encrypted voting system to safeguard the integrity of elections. (June 11, 2014)
Science News Math Trek:
For seven years, I wrote a column for Science News about mathematics. For all of my Math Trek articles, go here. Some samples:
- A Building of Bubbles The swim center for the Olympics, which looks like it formed out of froth, was designed using the mathematics of foam. (July19, 2008)
- The Grammy in Mathematics Mathematician nominated for award for restoring the only known recording of a live Woody Guthrie performance. (February 5, 2008)
- Winning the World Series with Math A nearly circular path could be the fastest way to home plate. (October 22, 2010)
- Darwin, the Reluctant Mathematician Despite disliking mathematics, the great biologist inadvertently advanced statistics. (February 11, 2009)
For all of my Wired Equation articles, go here. Some samples:
- How Much Money Do Spammers Rake In? (February 28, 2011)
- Why Soda Goes Pop (April 26, 2011)
- Formula for Calculating a Skycraper’s Sway (November 29, 2010)
Other Wired articles:
1848 Daguerreotypes Bring Middle America's Past to Life (July 9, 2010)
I’ve had great fun being a guest on All Things Considered several times to discuss math. You can see all of them here. Here are three samples:
- Scientists Discover 15th Convex Pentagon Able to Tile the Plane (August 14, 2015)
- ‘Principia Mathematica’ celebrates 100 years (December 22, 2010)
- Fields Medal Recognizes Mathematical Achievement (August 19, 2010)
Fields Medalist profiles:
In 2010, I had the honor to write "work profiles" for the general public of the winners of the Fields Medals, one of the highest honors in mathematics, on behalf of the International Mathematical Union, which gives the prizes. It was an exciting challenge to present such abstract mathematics in a way that (I hope!) non-mathematicians can understand and appreciate. See the profiles for Elon Lindenstrauss, Ngo Bao Chau, Stanislav Smirmov and Cedric Villani.
I have written several booklets about mathematics for math organizations. I wrote one on the mathematics and statistics of sustainability and several on math education for MSRI, like this one, based on its Critical Issues in Mathematics Education annual conference.
In 2006, I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome (or, as the more severe version is sometimes called, myalgic encephalomyelitis), an illness I've struggled with since 1999. I’ve had an amazing recovery, primarily through taking extreme steps to avoid mold.
My memoir about navigating the science and politics of poorly-understood illnesses, Through The Shadowlands: A Science Writer's Odyssey into an Illness Science Doesn't Understand, will be released by Rodale in May, 2017.
Here a number of my newspaper and magazine pieces about the illness:
New York Times:
- Getting It Wrong on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome In 2011, a Lancet study claimed that psychotherapy and gradually increasing exercise could cure chronic fatigue syndrome. But their data showed it couldn't. Patients worked for years to bring the problems with the trial to light, and it was an honor and a thrill to publish a piece in the New York Times (cowritten with David Tuller) bringing the fruit of their labors to light. (March 18, 2017)
- A Disease Doctors Refuse to See The highly prestigious Institute of Medicine wrote that ME/CFS is a real, non-psychiatric disease, based on a review of the scientific literature, and it called for doctors to take it seriously. Many doctors responded by sneering. (February 25, 2015)
- Bad Science Misled Millions with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Here's How We Fought Back I'm especially proud of this piece. Patients had just won access to the PACE trial data and published their initial reanalysis, which showed that the PACE investigators' claims of recovery were bogus. I told the story from my own, personal point of view. I think it's the story that best captures the drama of the situation. (September 21, 2016)
- Hope for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: I wrote this shortly after Tuller published his great exposé of the PACE trial. It introduced the very serious problems with the trial to the general public for the first time. (November 13, 2015)
- Stolen Notebooks and a Biochemist in Chains This was the very first article I ever wrote about ME/CFS, when I was at my very sickest. It transformed my life. I "came out" publicly as having the disease myself, and as a result, I was contacted by patients who introduced me to the idea that mold might be at the root of my illness. (December 2, 2011)
- What is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and Why Aren't We Doing More To Treat The Illness? and How the Definition of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Keeps Changing When I tell people that the politics of chronic fatigue syndrome are horrendous, they often look surprised. "Politics?" they ask. This article, with its sidebar, explains what I mean. (October 6, 2014)
Sense about Science:
- Epistemically Challenged Man, it's fun to be interviewed and get to out-and-out say what I think! I was asked about a "problem of knowledge" I was particularly interested in, and I discussed how my experience with ME/CFS has transformed my relationship to science and left me wondering about how we, as individuals evaluate the significance of science. (September 8, 2015)
Joint Statistics Meetings, 2016:
- Bad Statistics, Bad Reporting, Bad Impact on Patients: The Story of the PACE Trial These are slides (with notes) from a talk I gave to statisticians. It was a delight to watch their jaws drop. Either download the slides or click on "notes," just above the comment box, to see what I said. (August 1, 2016)
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Gets Some Respect After so many years of so little high-quality research on ME/CFS, it was a pleasure to get to report on some truly interesting findings. (November 30, 2015)
Santa Fe Institute:
- Medical, Scientific and Journalistic Pitfalls in the Study of Confusing Illnesses As part of a fabulous journalism fellowship at the Santa Fe Institute, I gave a talk to a group of researchers in complex systems, illustrating the complex sociology of poorly understood illnesses. A transcript is available here. (February 26, 2014)
The open notebook:
- David Tuller Unravels the Research History of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Just a week and a half after I published my first piece on chronic fatigue syndrome in Slate, David Tuller published a long, detailed article on the terrible treatment the chronic fatigue syndrome community has received from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was a shock to see a piece of journalism that accurately depicted the history and politics of this disease, and I wanted to know more. So I interviewed him about the piece for The Open Notebook. (January 18, 2012)
- Constant Vigilance: Julie Rehmeyer's Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Recovery Story Until my book comes out, this gives the most detailed information publicly available about the treatment approaches that proved so helpful for me. (May 2, 2014)
- Bad Science Misled Millions With Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Here's How We Fought Back In 2011, a Lancet study claimed that psychotherapy and gradually increasing exercise could cure chronic fatigue syndrome. Patients found huge scientific problems with the study, and after a five-year battle, won access to the underlying data -- and proved that it was bogus. I tell the story here from my own personal perspective. (September 21, 2016)
- The Lost Father My father died when I was 18, and I never knew him. But I've come to have a relationship with him anyway. (March 26, 2014)
High Country News:
- Wedding in the Shadowed Valley On the morning of my wedding, I was terrified. My fiance was dissolving into bipolar disorder. (August 5, 2011)