Book Review - Panic in Level 4: Cannibals, Killer Viruses, and Other Journeys to the Edge of Science by Richard Preston
This sounded like a great idea when I found it on the shelf at the library... Panic in Level 4: Cannibals, Killer Viruses, and Other Journeys to the Edge of Science by Richard Preston. I opened the book, expecting to have around 200 pages of talk about killer viruses and the war against them. Instead, I got a seemly random assortment of stories that mostly bore little resemblance to the "Panic in Level 4" title. I almost felt like a victim of bait-and-switch.
Introduction - Adventures in Nonfiction Writing; The Mountains of Pi; A Death in the Forest; The Search for Ebola; The Human Kabbalah; The Lost Unicorn; The Self-Cannibals; Glossary; Acknowledgments
The title actually comes from the Introduction chapter. It's there that the author relates his story of being allowed to enter a level 4 biohazard room as part of his background research as a writer. This is something that normally is never allowed, but a few rules were bent and he learned what it's like to be working with viruses that can kill you 100% of the time. Had the whole book stayed in that vein, it would have been great. But then Preston launched into an assortment of stories that, in my opinion, failed to deliver on the promise of the intro and title.
The Mountains of Pi examines two mathematicians who built their own supercomputer and dig deeply into the calculations of the value of Pi. Not a bad story in itself, but not exactly "panic" and "level 4" excitement. A Death in the Forest gets into how an insect infestation kills off eastern hemlock trees, and follows the people who try to prevent the deaths. Far from riveting... The Search for Ebola gets back to the title premise a bit, and shows how difficult it is to trace down the source of a disease that has no cure. The Human Kabbalah then reverts back to the "switch" category by following the story of the mapping of the human genome. An inordinate amount of time is spent looking at the personalities involved between the two groups trying to complete the mapping, as well as the motivation and lifestyle of each. Again, perhaps not a bad story in itself, but off the path of expectations. The Lost Unicorn goes into the efforts to restore the Unicorn Tapestries and the computing power needed to blend together digital images of the tapestries so that a digital record of the work is maintained. We're not only "off the path" now, but I'm not sure there was ever a path to begin with! The Self-Cannibals veers back towards the title, covering a syndrome known as Lesch-Nyhan where people are compelled to mutilate themselves in strange and painful ways. It could be a book by itself, but unfortunately it's a small chapter that only helps to counterbalance the other chapters that were out in left field.
I really enjoyed Preston's other works, which capture the danger and intensity of working with killer illnesses that approach a 100% level of mortality. Panic lacked a cohesive thread based on the title, and I was really disappointed that so many of the chapters failed to deliver on expectations. If you come into the book knowing that it's not all about microbes and germs, you may be more forgiving on the choice of chapter subjects. Unfortunately, I didn't, and I wasn't...