In-depth interview in American Scientist

I'm utterly delighted with the interview American Scientist did with me, "An Illness Observed." We covered the issues you might expect in a science magazine—the politics of science, the flaws in some ME/CFS research, the value of patient experience even when it lacks a scientific foundation—but we also discussed how mathematics guided my approach to my illness, how I drew on my spirituality to find a way forward, and even the Jungian notion of shadow. Here's a bit I particularly enjoyed discussing:

I was trained as a mathematician at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and although I left research, doing math has profoundly shaped my way of viewing the world. The rigor and careful logic of mathematics was an obvious tool to apply to my illness. I carefully observed my own condition, noting what seemed to make things better or worse, remaining skeptical of my own pet theories, playing out the likely consequences of my ideas.

But my mathematical training affected my approach in a less obvious way, too. The process of solving a deep math problem is highly intuitive. When you write out your proof at the end, you spell out the logical connections, but that’s not the process of discovery. Instead, you in large part feel your way to the new idea, based on an intuition you’ve built over years. By working on examples and just learning lots of different kinds of mathematics, you develop a sense of how things tend to behave. You get a good sense of what should be true, as if you’re perceiving a kind of invisible structure within mathematics itself, and you can then feel your way along these great beams and columns to find your way to rooms that have never been visited before.

The thrill of interweaving logic and intuition to navigate a hidden realm was a big part of what drew me to mathematics in the first place. For me, it had a profoundly spiritual quality. My own experience of spirituality addresses the aspects of the world that are vastly bigger than we are, the things that we can faintly perceive but can’t contain, that which evokes reverence in us. It’s the hidden structure that underlies the world—just like mathematics... 

Read the whole interview here.