Panic in Level 4 : Cannibals, Killer Viruses, and Other Journeys to the Edge of Science
Bizarre illnesses and plagues that kill people in the most unspeakable ways. Obsessive and inspired efforts by scientists to solve mysteries and save lives. From The Hot Zone to The Demon in the Freezer and beyond, Richard Preston's bestselling works have mesmerized readers everywhere by showing them strange worlds of nature they never dreamed of.
Panic in Level 4 is a grand tour through the eerie and unforgettable universe of Richard Preston, filled with incredible characters and mysteries that refuse to leave one's mind. Here are dramatic true stories from this acclaimed and award-winning author, including:
- The phenomenon of "self-cannibals," who suffer from a rare genetic condition caused by one wrong letter in their DNA that forces them to compulsively chew their own flesh-and why everyone may have a touch of this disease.
- The search for the unknown host of Ebola virus, an organism hidden somewhere in African rain forests, where the disease finds its way into the human species, causing outbreaks of unparalleled horror.
- The brilliant Russian brothers-"one mathematician divided between two bodies"-who built a supercomputer in their apartment from mail-order parts in an attempt to find hidden order in the number pi (?).
In fascinating, intimate, and exhilarating detail, Richard Preston portrays the frightening forces and constructive discoveries that are currently roiling and reordering our world, once again proving himself a master of the nonfiction narrative and, as noted in The Washington Post, "a science writer with an uncommon gift for turning complex biology into riveting page-turners."
The title of New Yorker contributor Preston's new collection refers to the subject of his bestselling The Hot Zone: a series of rooms in a government biohazard laboratory where scientists work with virulent pathogens like the Ebola viruses that would be devastating in the hands of terrorists. The essays (all from the New Yorker) cover such scientific matters as a profile of controversial Uber-genome mapper Craig Venter; a gene that leads people to cannibalize themselves; and two Russian-Jewish emigre scientists who built a monster computer in their cramped apartment to puzzle out patterns in the value of pi. Preston's essay on the destruction of large swaths of eastern U.S. forests by insect parasites accidentally brought into the country from abroad is the shortest but most compelling. Preston might have done more to update his pieces; for example, the Marburg virus was found in bats last year, supporting his hypothesis that they are the reservoir for Ebola. But Preston's fans will enjoy his showing how few degrees of separation there are between far-flung areas of scientific endeavors. Illus. (June) Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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May 26, 2008
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Excerpt from Panic in Level 4 by Richard Preston
INTRODUCTION- Adventures in Nonfiction Writing
Oliver Heaviside, the English mathematician and physicist, once
said, "In order to know soup, it is not necessary to climb into a pot and
be boiled." Unfortunately, this statement is not true for journalists. As
a writer of what's called "literary nonfiction" or "creative nonfiction"-
narrative that is said to read like a novel but is factually verifiable-
it has often been my practice to climb into the soup. Getting
boiled with your characters is a good way to get to know them, but it
has occasionally led me into frightening situations.
Some years ago, while I was researching The Hot Zone, a book that
focuses on the Ebola virus, I may have had a meeting with an unknown
strain of Ebola. (A virus is an exceedingly small life-form, an infectious
parasite that replicates inside living cells, using the cell's own machinery
to make more copies of itself.)
Ebola has now been classified into seven different known types.
Though it has been studied for more than thirty years, Ebola is one of
the least-understood viruses in nature. Scientists have been understandably
reluctant to study Ebola too closely because it has on occasion
killed those who tried to do so. The virus was first was noticed in
1976, when it surfaced in Yambuku, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic
of Congo), near the Ebola River, where it sacked a Catholic
mission hospital, killing most of the medical staff along with a number
of patients and people the patients had came into contact with. Ebola
spreads from one person to the next by direct contact with blood or secretions,
including sweat. There is no evidence that it can spread
among humans through the air, although there is some evidence that
it may spread among monkeys this way. As a parasite, Ebola carries on
its life cycle in some unidentified type of animal-Ebola's natural
host-that lives in certain unidentified habitats in equatorial Africa.
Occasionally Ebola comes into contact with a person, and the virus
makes what is known as a trans-species jump from its host into the
When Ebola gets inside a human host, it causes the person's immune
system to vanish, and the person dies with hemorrhages coming
from the body's orifices. The most lethal strains of Ebola have been
known to kill up to 95 percent of people who become infected with it.
Ebola causes people to vomit masses of black blood with a distinctive
"coffee grounds" appearance. Victims can have a bright red nosebleed,
or epistaxis; it won't stop. A spotty, bumpy rash spreads over the body,
while small, starlike hemorrhages appear beneath the skin. An Ebola
patient can have blood standing in droplets on the eyelids and running
from the tear ducts down the face. Blood can flow from the nose,
mouth, vagina, rectum. The testicles can become infected with Ebola
and can swell up or be destroyed. Victims display signs of psychosis.
They can develop endless hiccups. Rarely, in particularly severe cases of
Ebola, the linings of the intestines and rectum may come off. Those
membranes may be expelled through the anus in raglike pieces called
casts, or the intestinal lining can emerge in the form of a sleeve, like a
sock. When an Ebola patient expels a sleeve, it is known as throwing a
Some of the action in The Hot Zone takes place at Fort Detrick, an
Army base in the rolling country along the eastern flank of the Appalachian
Mountains in Maryland, an hour's drive northwest of Washington,