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Panic in Level 4    by Richard Preston order for
Panic in Level 4
by Richard Preston
Order:  USA  Can
Random House, 2008 (2008)
Hardcover, CD, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Alex Telander

Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone and The Wild Trees returns with Panic in Level 4, featuring six of his articles that have appeared over the recent years, in some form, in the New Yorker. While the title refers to the highest level, Bio Safety Level 4 (BL-4), of biosecurity in the laboratory, the articles run the gamut of subjects from the number pi, to the search for the origin of Ebola, to a unique type of cannibal.

In Preston's introduction, Adventures in Nonfiction Writing, he tells a story of the time when he was finally granted access to Level 4, describing step by step being taken to the room where the suits are, each bearing the name of its owner, and handed a suit with no name; Preston takes this as a bad sign. Inside Level 4, Preston observes the courageous scientists who face the risk of infection and death as their day job, watching them investigate blood samples of a possible Ebola victim. As Preston bends down to look into a microscope, the front part of his suit bursts open and Preston is rushed from the lab and checked for Ebola infection. Since Panic in Level 4 has been written and published, Preston obviously survived his brush with one of the most lethal viruses ever discovered.

In The Mountains of Pi, we meet two brothers who live in a small apartment in New York and spend their time building supercomputers and furthering their research into pi and its possible pattern. In The Search for Ebola, Preston travels to different countries in Africa, tracing the history of Ebola outbreaks to their original sources in an attempt to find the genesis of the deadly virus. In other articles, Preston discovers a treasure-trove of wondrous trees in the most unlikely of places; and discusses the finding of an ancient tapestry at the Metropolitan Museum that when turned over for repair, reveals a back side that has rarely seen the light, still in its original breathtaking detail.

In the final article, The Self-Cannibals, Preston educates the reader about the rare disease Lesch-Nyahn syndrome, where a single altered letter in DNA makeup creates the occasional mental state in which victims feel their limbs are out to attack them and must be stopped through self-cannibalism and self destruction. Preston meets and becomes friends with sufferers of the syndrome, revealing a human side to this devastating disease. He makes us realize that even though these individuals are threatened by their very own bodies, they are still people just like you or I.

Preston seems justifiably proud of the fact that he seeks out the humanity in the difficult subjects he addresses, and in this way makes them accessible and understandable to anyone, no matter their background. Panic in Level 4 aims to not just educate the reader in some of the mysteries of this world, but also to reveal the complexity and brilliance of the human species.

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