Science journalist Richard Preston practices "on the spot" reporting. When told that a person does not have to get into the boiling soup pot to understand the soup, he disagrees. He believes that experiencing danger replaces speculation with insight. In one of his stories in Panic in Level 4: Cannibals, Killer Viruses, and Other Journeys to the Edge of Science, he tells how he risked his life to get close to a deadly virus. He took the precautions of wearing a pressurized space-age suit and working with training medical professionals, but he did look straight into the petri dishes filled with viruses capable of killing him quickly and violently. It is riveting reading.
The cover illustration, title, and description of Panic in Level 4 will probably scare away some readers. A glance at the cover leads one to think the book is totally gruesome. This is unfortunate, as there are six of Preston's New Yorker articles collected in this book, not all dealing with disturbing topics. He describes Russian mathematicians seeking to find the exact number Pi, the work to save American trees from Asian parasites, the competition to discover all the gene sequences in human DNA, and work to restore the Unicorn tapestries at the Cloisters in New York. He then ends the book with a story about Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes young men and boys to mutilate themselves.
I listened to Panic in Level 4 read by James Lurie, who is great at voices. I could hardly stop listening and finished the 8 hours in only 3 days.
Librarians recommending Panic in Level 4 might advise readers that stories 1 and 6 include some graphic descriptions of human bodies experiencing trauma. Preston's words are as effective as photographs in medical textbooks. Some readers may abandon these stories, which is unfortunate, as the stories are fascinating. This book should be in most public libraries.
Preston, Richard. Panic in Level 4. Books on Tape, 2008. ISBN 9781415949672