Panic in Level 4: Cannibals, Killer Viruses, and Other Journeys to the Edge of Science
Richard Preston, Random House, 2008, 240 p., $26.
Panic in Level 4
Preston’s style of journalism, he says, is the
equivalent of climbing into a boiling pot to better understand soup.
In this collection,
Preston describes some of his close encounters with the subjects he has written
about, telling, for example, how he donned a “spacesuit” to visit a
high-security U.S. Army lab where researchers study Ebola virus (the subject of
Preston’s celebrated thriller The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story).
He goes on to
describe how he climbed the tallest tree east of the Mississippi River, right
after it had been killed by an invasive species — a tiny bug from Japan.
And, in another
chapter, he recalls the time he spent with sufferers of a rare genetic disorder
who hurt and bit themselves.
Preston, in his introduction to the book, provides
some insights into his reportorial technique, including how he sometimes stops
taking notes (instead relying on his memory) to put his sources at ease during
especially sensitive parts of his interviews.
As for his writing
style, Preston does not waste words. In terse,
short sentences, he reconstructs situations, events and states of mind with a
novelist’s touch. But, as the author points out, the reality he describes is
often more incredible than fiction.
This book gathers
and slightly expands upon six long pieces Preston
wrote for The New Yorker over several years, and includes articles on
genome sequencing pioneer Craig Venter, two mathematicians obsessed with the
number pi and a set of unique tapestries from the Renaissance. Reading the
articles will be worthwhile, even for people who read them back then. —Davide Castelvecchi