Years ago, while killing time in some clinic’s waiting room, I came across an old back issue of The New Yorker. Thumbing through the magazine I stumbled upon an article by then upstart science writer Richard Preston about a mysterious and horrific virus called Ebola. Utterly lethal and completely incurable, this fast-spreading hemorrhagic virus was like no disease I’d heard of. Later, after Preston transformed the article into the best-selling book The Hot Zone, I found a used copy at a garage sale. The book went on to be one of my favorite science books and in the processes help spark my long-time interest in infectious diseases.
So, I guess it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise then when I saw Richard Preston’s Panic in Level 4: Cannibals, Killer Viruses and Other Journeys to the Edge of Science on the shelf of my public library I grabbed it. Published in 2008, the book is a collection of six science essays, most or all of which originally appeared in some form or another in The New Yorker.
One might consider the subject material covered in Panic in Level 4 as “extreme science”. In addition to the above mentioned Ebola, Preston investigates a bizarre genetic disorder much akin to Tourette’s syndrome and Parkinson’s that drives its sufferers to bite off their own appendages and swear uncontrollably at loved ones. Another powerful essay chronicles the adventures of two brothers, both math geniuses, who constructed a supercomputer in their own New York City apartment from mail-order parts in a quest to find the last digit of pi. Lastly, Preston also looks at the ecological dangerous posed by invasive non-native life forms by spotlighting the damage down to North America’s eastern hemlock by the woolly adelgid, an insect native to Asia.
I must have liked Preston’s book because I burned through it no time. While I enjoyed all the essays, the one about Craig Venter and the Human Genome Project I found a bit dry and slightly dated. I also thought the book’s introduction was a bit too long and in need of a little editing. But other than that, I’m glad I read Panic in Level 4. Hopefully, I will read a few more interesting science books like this one in 2011.