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Panic in Level 4: Cannibals, Killer Viruses, and Other Journeys to the Edge of Science

Richard Preston, Random House, 2008, 240 p., $26.

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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

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