Fourteen years after “The Hot Zone” catapulted him to the top of the best-seller lists, science journalist Richard Preston returns to the biohazard lab in “Panic in Level 4: Cannibals, Killer Viruses, and Other Journeys to the Edge of Science.” Rather than telling a single story, Preston offers a collection of them, culled from articles previously published in The New Yorker, but slightly revised here for purposes of cohesion.
His introduction, “Adventures in Nonfiction Writing,” tells how he felt it necessary to get into that fabled fourth level of the U.S. Army’s Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in order to tell the “Zone” scientists’ story accurately, because one can’t convey the true feeling of being face to face with the deadly Ebola virus unless one has been there.
At first, he was rebuffed, but ultimately succeeded, albeit possibly by accident. And speaking of accidents, his recounting of having his suit deflate via a broken zipper while in the lab is a clincher “ a reminder of how powerful his “Zone” was, somewhat diluted nowadays by the big-budget theatrics of “Outbreak,” the 1995 film loosely based on his work.
Preston also uses the intro to explain his writing process, and how paying attention to details others may find insignificant actually paints a “you are there” portrait that makes his facts read like fiction.
And like great fiction, readers will be hard-pressed to put this book down. Set in the Congo, the chapter “The Search for Ebola” could be a sidebar to the original “Zone,” but really, it’s the nonviral pieces that make “Panic” worth devouring, particularly the two that serve as its open and close.
First up is “The Mountains of Pi,” in which two eccentric brothers and Russian emigrants have spent roughly $70,000 to build their own supercomputer in their Manhattan apartment, solely in an attempt to define that great mathematical mystery known as pi to a point at which it stops, if it ever does. The Chudnovskys crack 2 billion digits before halting their probe, but not before the machine threatens to overheat and crash, with the siblings kvetching all the while, casting their tale with a slight comic bent.
And last is “The Self-Cannibals,” which can be seen as “Pi”‘s polar opposite, as charm cedes to horror. The article chronicles the plight of sufferers of Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that causes babies’ urine to crystallize and appear as sand. But that’s hardly the worst of it “ LNS patients grow up with the uncontrollable propensity to harm themselves, by chewing off their fingertips and lips, and even gouging out their eyes.
Preston befriends a few of them “ difficult though that may be “ and his account of their lives is both enlightening and heartbreaking. (A word of warning: An included photograph of an LNS victim “smiling” for the camera “ despite having no upper palate or sinuses, because he pulled them out “ is not easily forgotten.)