Summer reading 2: Richard Preston's "Panic in Level 4"

I had ended up with a ratty old piece of Army gear, a space suit that belonged to nobody A little voice started speaking in my head. What are you doing here? the voice said. You're in an Ebola lab in a fucking defective space suit. I started to feel giddy. It was an intoxicating rush of fear, a sensation that all I needed to do was relax and let the fear take hold, and I could drift away on waves of panic, screaming for help.

Martha was looking into my eyes again.

The little voice went on: You're headed for the Slammer.

Richard Preston opens his new publication, a collection of essays titled Panic in Level 4: Cannibals, killer viruses, and other journeys to the edge of science, with a quotation: "In order to know soup, it is not necessary to climb into a pot and be boiled." Preston disagrees with the sentiment, expressed by English mathematician and physicist Oliver Heaviside. Preston discusses how he, as a journalist, has created a living by jumping into the soup--even though it's sometimes scared the piss out of him, as described in the excerpt above (the "panic" described in the title). However, Preston fans should be cautioned that this all isn't typical Preston fare. More after the jump...

Preston has hit it big previously writing non-fiction about science and disease, most notably with 1994's The Hot Zone (on Ebola and Marburg) and 2002's The Demon in the Freezer, on the topic of biological warfare (and especially smallpox and anthrax, coming shortly on the heels of the 2001 anthrax attacks). Preston has made his mark by writing non-fiction about microbes that reads like a thriller: intense, suspenseful, and often graphic (and, say some critics, overly dramatized and exaggerated in places). Nevertheless, it's hard to argue that Preston's books aren't good reads.

Lesser known are Preston's other non-fiction works, covering topics such as the steel industry and the canopies of the world's tallest Redwoods. Because fewer people are aware of Preston's writings on topics other than infectious disease, and because of the title of the book, it will probably come as a surprise to many Preston fans that the book is a collection of essays first published in the New Yorker. Yes, they cover infectious diseases--the opening chapter is from where the title is drawn, describing Preston's time in a BSL4 laboratory while researching "The Hot Zone"--but readers will also find essays that describe the construction of a supercomputer to examine the the digits of pi--within a New York apartment; a profile of genomics heavyweight Craig Venter; and yes, an essay on Ebola and Marburg, among other topics covered in the anthology.

The essays themselves range from decent to pretty good--not Preston's best writing, in my opinion, but good for a summer take-along book when you're looking for bite-sized pieces of entertainment. However, what would have much improved the book was to have some kind of over-arching theme to show how these seemingly disjointed pieces of work were all part of the bigger picture of "the edge of science," as the subtitle announces. For example, how might Venter's work on the human genome project contribute to researchers' studies described in the final chapter, working on a strange disease that causes sufferers to cannibalize themselves? What might the new generations of supercomputers have in store for investigations of mysterious agents such as Ebola? While I found the essays included interesting, surely Preston could have taken a bit of time to give us a "bigger picture" view of the work included in the book.

However, it unfortunately seems that Preston wasn't very involved in bringing this publication to press. The essays weren't updated with the latest research findings (for example, the essay on Ebola still says that filoviruses weren't found in bats, which is is no longer the case). This is a shame, and coupled with the title has led some reviewers on Amazon to feel a bit shortchanged and victims of a bait-n-switch. However, if you're up for a bit of Preston branching out beyond his best-known subject matter, this would be a good one to grab from the library or borrow from a friend.

More like this

The Hot Zone was first released in 1994, the year I graduated high school. Like many readers, that book and Laurie Garrett's The Coming Plague* really sparked my interest in infectious diseases. In some sense, I have those books to thank (or blame?) for my career. But I'm still going to criticize…
I kicked off the week with a grumpy post about the Guardian's flawed list of great non-fiction, so let's end the week with a slightly more upbeat take on the same basic idea. The New York Times did a slightly lighter list, asking their staff to pick favorite nonfiction. The lack of consensus is…
I've mentioned at various times in the past The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance by Laurie Garrett. This is not a new book, but it is an excellent scholarly and accessible accounting of the situation with respect to emerging diseases at the time of its publication…
Over at the new Seed blog, here on ScienceBlogs, Katherine Sharpe asks about the best science books ever (a topic that was also discussed at Cosmic Variance some time back. I've been sort of swamped this week, but that's only part of the reason why I haven't responded. The main reason is a shameful…

Thanks for the heads up!

I am reading "BIOHAZARD: The chilling true story of the largest covert biological weapons program in the world - told from inside by the man who ran it" by Ken Alibek.

Pretty crazy stuff. I hope hope the ex-soviets were able to destroy all that stuff...

By boomer0127 (not verified) on 26 Jun 2008 #permalink

Tara,

I've got one of this earlier books (The Demon in the Freezer, I think) yet to be read... too many other things to do...

One book you might like in a similar "genre" is Anthrax (http://www.ucpress.edu/books/pages/8835.php). Its an account of a scientific team that visited the Russian city of Sverdlovsk to investigate an anthrax outbreak that occurred in 1979, to track the origin of the outbreak.

The author is a woman, one of the scientists on the team, the team includes epidemiologists and you seem to like travel, so you might like this if you haven't already read it. Its not as fast-paced as Preston's works, but it is an interesting read.

By BioinfoTools (not verified) on 26 Jun 2008 #permalink

I was reading the opening of the first post here about the quote Preston opened with and maybe disagrees with.

Not sure if that really means much after plenty of experience that showed me that Preston really stretches things. He does not really lie, but he uses superlatives and applies them to facts in a way that leads people to think a bit out of bounds.

Let me put it this way; in The Wild Trees, he implies that a mere handful of botanists know where the most special redwoods are. Not true:

http://www.mdvaden.com/grove_of_titans.shtml

I've been there. Trees are my trade. And I know part of his book is feeding people a line of "bull". Especially regarding where they are or are not. But it's a non-fiction book, so better to shut up completely, that twist things or misrepresent.

Now, I can still recommend The Wild Trees because my profession allows me to know fact from fantasy in the book, and I know that technically most of the facts are accurate on the tree stuff. About the people stuff, I really don't know now.

But documenting the groves took so much wind out of the sails for me about Preston's writing, that I don't really think I'd want to read another book of his.

I learned first hand that he's really into the shock and awe type thing. Even in Wild Trees, he had to pull a situation into one chapter about a forest workers falling and dying, who had absolutely nothing to do with any characters or context. Yes, it was a climbing death. But it was inserted just for the shock and awe effect.

As for fact-gathering, that I'll give Preston a "10" for. He seems very adept at harvesting information from people and using it. As for "How" he uses it, different story.

Cheers,

M. D. Vaden of Oregon