Scientist Camilla Pang On Being Neurodivergent And The Power Of Science : Short Wave Camilla Pang talks with Short Wave host Emily Kwong about her award-winning memoir, "An Outsider's Guide to Humans: What Science Taught Me About What We Do And Who We Are." Diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at age 8, the scientist and writer pairs her favorite scientific principles with human behavior and navigating daily life.

Camilla Pang On Turning Fear Into Light

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Before she got a Ph.D. and became a scientist, before she wrote an award-winning memoir, Camilla Pang was just a kid collecting leaves in her family's garden.

CAMILLA PANG: I loved being in the garden and just starting my science journey by observing things that had no significance to me in the same way that others did.

KWONG: And it was in that garden in Wales that Camilla asked her mom a question that had been bothering her. This is how she starts her memoir.

PANG: (Reading) It was five years into my life on Earth that I started to think I'd landed in the wrong place. I must have missed a stop. I felt like a stranger within my own species, someone who understood the words but couldn't speak the language, who shares an appearance with fellow humans but none of the essential characteristics. In our garden at home, I would sit in a multicolored tent tilted sideways, my spaceship, with an atlas laid out in front of me, wondering what it would take to blast off back to my home planet. And when that didn't work, I turned to one of the few people who maybe did understand me. Mum, is there an instruction manual for humans? She looked at me blankly. You know, like a guidebook, something that explains why people behave the way they do? I can't be certain - picking up on facial expressions was not, is not and never has been my forte - but in that moment, I think I saw my mother's heart break. No, Millie (ph).

KWONG: There was no instruction manual, but there was science. By the age of 7, Camilla was cracking open her uncle's science textbooks and asking for her own and, as the years went by, developed her own process for discovering the world.

PANG: It was messy, as my mother would say.

KWONG: (Laughter).

PANG: But it was hilarious, as my dad would say. But it was - it wasn't just, like, me reading books and being a good little girl doing science. It was, like, tantrums and meltdowns and mud on carpets and collecting woodlouse and making them a home in places where woodlouse shouldn't really be - in the bedroom or anywhere.

KWONG: Years later, Camilla was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, ADHD and generalized anxiety disorder. And as she grew, she read more across scientific disciplines, compiling information in notebooks and pairing science concepts with her observations about people, basically creating her own instruction manual that fills 60 notebooks that are piled up in her London flat.

PANG: I think the whole process for me in writing didn't start out by writing. It started out by misbehaving and challenging and questioning and collecting objects, ordering them and creating a language that translated my thoughts to what was happening in the world. And it didn't start with words.

KWONG: Those notebooks became the basis for her memoir, which is called "An Outsider's Guide To Humans: What Science Taught Me About What We Do And Who We Are." And this book - it won the Royal Society Prize for Science Books in 2020. And we're going to take a deep dive into it. So today on the show, we go on a journey that began with a question and ended with a homegrown instruction manual. Scientist Camilla Pang on how to use scientific principles to combat fear and calculate what really matters in life. I'm Emily Kwong, and this is SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.


KWONG: In her quest for connection and understanding, Camilla's memoir covers a lot of ground, everything from using machine learning to help us make tough decisions to finding harmony in our relationships using wave theory. There's a lot of science packed in this book, and today we're going to focus on just two chapters, one connecting thermodynamics to perfectionism and the other relating fear to light. All right. Flipping to Page 48, the thermodynamics chapter focuses specifically on the second of the three laws. I'll let Camilla explain.

PANG: So the second law of thermodynamics states that a spontaneous reaction in a system will only occur if the entropy of that reaction is bigger than zero. Aka, there needs to be more chaos after than before.

KWONG: Entropy is just a fancy word for disorder. And the second law of thermodynamics basically says that the disorder of a system will increase, like how a plate breaks or the messiness of Camilla's teenage bedroom increases. She dedicates this chapter, "How To Forget About Perfectionism," to her mom. And it begins like this.

PANG: (Reading) What to an untrained eye seemed like chaos was to me personally tailored with everything where I put it last spontaneously curated to ensure the optimum place for immediate use. Possessions strewn across the middle of the floor hadn't just been left there by accident but to ensure I would have equal access to them for either end of the room. It's spontaneous and adaptable. To me, this is how I roll. That earned me a motherly rolling of the eyes. Good luck with that, she murmured, in exactly the same tone of voice she had used when I said, age 4, that I wanted to marry Elton John.

KWONG: (Laughter). When your mom was talking about you cleaning your room, you actually write in the book you wanted to clap back with the second law of thermodynamics.

PANG: Yeah, and...

KWONG: And you didn't at the time, but you did in the book. So what is that, and what does that have to do with bedroom cleaning?

PANG: So it's a lot easier to create more chaos and disorder in a system than it is to keep it tidy, which is one of the reasons why we spend so much energy trying to create order in our lives. It's about choosing the battles because being perfect and having this complete specific vision of how everything should lay to the tiniest detail takes so much energy. And quite a lot of those tiny, little battles aren't worth it because they don't make too much of a difference. And for me, thermodynamics just gave me an awareness that this took energy. And as we get older, we forget that because we're superhuman. And toxic, positivity means you have endless energy 'cause we're all amazing humans. But we're not. We're biology, and we're victims of physics.

KWONG: Right. We're victims of physics, and our energy is dictated by the laws of science. Like, we...

PANG: There we go.

KWONG: Absolutely right. We don't have infinite amounts of energy. And, I mean, as someone who has struggled with perfectionism, for you to apply the laws of thermodynamics in stopping and asking, is this where I want to put my energy right now? - was actually really healing to hear that message that way.

PANG: Thank you. I'm really glad because I - don't get me wrong - we can all get stuck in a rut where we forget about that. I mean, we're human. But for me, my priorities are lighting, making sure the dog's fed, making sure the family's well and fit and healthy. And those are quite abstract, but they're achievable in a day. And if you've got a kind of goal that's going to take six months, don't try and be like, oh, my God, I've got to get it all done today, which is tempting, which is what I do. But know that it's OK to not be on time or to do the to-do lists. You don't know how things are going to unfold. And that's OK.

KWONG: Yeah. And the laws of physics seem to support that.

PANG: They totally do. Physics has your back on this one.

KWONG: The other chapter I want to talk about is - and I think it's honestly one of the most beautiful chapters in the book is - "How To Feel The Fear." And you talk about the anxiety attacks you've experienced, about night terrors, about living with autism spectrum disorder and ADHD and generalized anxiety and the attendant emotions that come with it. And I'm wondering how you started thinking about your fears differently using science.

PANG: I think being able to model your fear as something separate to you is a relieving thing in itself because then it makes you be like, OK - it makes you see it in your own hands as opposed to you be just completely absorbed in it. And being autistic, you get this quite often when things such as sirens and leaf blowers can really set you off on an absolute meltdown where everything suddenly just crashes down on you like blinding light. It makes you feel sick. And so I've had to teach myself a way to kind of unpack that and be like, OK, I feel this. It feels like this. This is when this happens. What am I scared of? And for me, it was looking at the refraction of the sunlight through, like, a crystal oyster shell duck thing that my mum has in her window.

KWONG: Yes, let's walk through this slowly. So at some point in processing your fears, you figured out that fear is kind of like light?

PANG: Yeah. So every morning at 7 a.m. or just before school, the sun would shine. Or hopefully, it would do. And if it did, it would reflect its light on my mother's crystal oyster duck thing she had on her windowsill and burst into a rainbow. And I was like, Oh, wait a minute, this prism is turning something that we don't see as colorful yet very bright and is something that is beautiful. You could almost taste it. And I was like, this is amazing. And I knew that it had something to do with physics. I remember seeing a diagram in a physics book.

Over time, I realized that I needed to be my own prism. And that means being transparent enough to be able to pivot what you're feeling into how it affects you. It's very important to be transparent because that's when you work through things, and you can talk about them, whereas if you're opaque, the light will get in, and you can't see any of the colors. And it's a very metaphorical model, I admit.

KWONG: By the way, Camilla is constantly tweaking and testing her thoughts. She is a true scientist. And she said something really interesting at this point in our conversation. Since the book has come out, Camilla has been experimenting with not becoming a prism, not trying to dissect and analyze how she feels right away.

PANG: To not put pressure on yourself to sort it out 'cause I think a lot of people feel like, oh, my God, I got to come up with steps to sort it out. But it doesn't work like that. And I think being able to realize that is quite good. It gives yourself time to analyze it and not put pressure to just sort it.

KWONG: I think it's impressive that you have evolved your thinking beyond what you published in the book. You've continued to experiment with this model and even, like, ask yourself if what you wrote back then is how you - what you would abide by right now.

PANG: Yeah, no, definitely. Well, that's the thing. It's a science, isn't it?

KWONG: It's, like, very science-like, of you.

PANG: (Laughter).

KWONG: You're, like, improving on your experimental outcomes.

PANG: Yeah, 'cause I want to make sure that - you know, the last thing I want to do is publish a book that I disagree with. If I do, I'm like, OK, why is that? I like to test it. And I think it's not disagreeing with it so much. But I think there's a step that if I were to rewrite the chapter, it's to let it pass through you first and to then - when you see it in its own light, to then figure out what it means.

KWONG: The last thing I want to talk about is actually not something in the book but just something I thought was really cool, OK? So you told The Guardian that this whole book was a gesture of empathy, which I thought was really interesting. Like, what - in what way was that for you?

PANG: Oh, yeah, you've done your research. Fair play (laughter). I was like, I don't remember. So basically, it's a gesture you give to others so that they can think differently about themselves and so that they're more able to speak for themselves and feel better connected with people. So - and for me, a lot of people say I don't have empathy because I'm autistic, even though they've not met me. I mean, that's a complete far-fetched judgment. And I want to break that stigma. I think there's no greater empathy than enabling people to feel that they can do something and be assuring them that what they feel is valid. And also, it's a thank you to my mum for being my mum, which was a very difficult job indeed, especially when things were quite turbulent with my autism. I think it explained to her what happened when I don't have the words to. So it's more of not only a love letter to science but a reconciliation and to be like, thank you for everything.


KWONG: Camilla Pang, thank you for giving so much of your time.

PANG: Thank you very much.


KWONG: The paperback version of Camilla's book, "An Outsider's Guide To Humans: What Science Taught Me About What We Do And Who We Are," comes out December 7. Today's episode was produced by Rebecca Ramirez, edited by Gisele Grayson and fact-checked by Margaret Cirino. The audio engineer was Leo Del Aguila. I'm Emily Kwong. Thank you so much for listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.


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