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Panic in Level 4: Cannibals, Killer Viruses, and Other Journeys to the Edge of Science Hardcover – May 27, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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 über-genome mapper Craig Venter; a gene that leads people to cannibalize themselves; and two Russian-Jewish émigré 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 © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School—Preston gets to the heart of these nonfiction essays by placing himself in the center of the story. The "panic" of the book's title refers to his own when his biohazard suit was breached and he feared he may have been exposed to one of the deadliest known viruses. Two of the pieces involve the brothers Chudnovsky, mathematicians so closely dependent on one another that they refer to themselves as The Mathematician. The author was able to disappear as an interviewer to the extent that he became part of the brothers' portrait. At one point, one Chudnovsky says to the other: "The interviewer answers our questions…. The interviewer becomes a person in the story." Preston used this skill of blending into his accounts to his advantage. Whether he was strapping on gear to climb mammoth hemlocks with arborists trying to understand the diseases killing the great trees of the world or acting as an off-road driver for a couple of men with the disease of self-cannibalization, Preston fit in like a good supporting actor who also happened to be the cameraman, writer, and director. Teens will find these stories compelling. The author has the eyes and language of a fine novelist, but he has the mind of a scientist who is trying to understand some of the most fascinating mysteries of our age.—Will Marston, Berkeley Public Library, CA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1st Printing edition (May 27, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400064902
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400064908
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (70 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #561,392 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Richard Preston is the bestselling author of The Hot Zone, The Demon in the Freezer, and the novel The Cobra Event. A writer for The New Yorker since 1985, Preston is the only nondoctor to have received the Centers for Disease Control's Champion of Prevention Award. He also holds an award from the American Institute of Physics. Preston lives outside of New York City.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

71 of 79 people found the following review helpful By Rick Shaq Goldstein on June 17, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The potential reader should be warned that despite the title of the book being "PANIC IN LEVEL 4", only the introduction portion of the book takes place at the Army's Level 4 virus laboratories at Fort Detrick, an Army base in the eastern flank of the Appalachian Mountains in Maryland. This is the headquarters of the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. (USAMRIID) "Biosafety Level 4, is the highest and tightest level of biosecurity in a laboratory. Laboratories rated at Biosafety Level 4 are repositories of viruses called hot agents-lethal viruses for which there is no vaccine or effective cure. Level 4 labs are sealed off from the outside world." The author does a tremendous job in this area, as his narration makes you feel as if you're inside a pressurized whole-body-biohazard-suit along with him. You'll feel sweat dripping down every orifice of your body as untreatable "live" vials of Ebola and other deadly diseases are in your presence, and all of a sudden the zipper on your suit opens, or you find a hole in your sleeve or pants. Unfortunately this section ends too quickly and then we are in New York visiting with brothers Gregory and David Chudnovsky, two mathematics geniuses, that have built a supercomputer utilizing mail order parts in their rundown apartment. All in their quest to find hidden order in the number "PI". (The division of the circle's diameter into its circumference.) These brothers have built the equivalent of a Cray Y-MP Supercomputer (At the time, one of, if not "THE" fastest computer in the world.) which cost more than THIRTY-MILLION-DOLLARS... while their home-built computer cost them about SEVENTY-THOUSAND-DOLLARS.Read more ›
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35 of 41 people found the following review helpful By Thomas Duff HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 21, 2008
Format: Hardcover
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.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on September 2, 2009
Format: Paperback
I don't understand why people are getting so up in arms about the title. It's an attention grabber, which is what titles are supposed to do. The book is a collection of short pieces about non-fiction subjects. To those who are complaining that the book isn't as exciting as Preston's other work, please take note: this is not fiction, and is therefore doesn't have as much of an excitement factor. If you take the book for what it is, I strongly believe that you will be pleased. Each piece within the book was fascinating (except maybe the bit about the Unicorn Tapestries, but that's just personal bias). I found this book to be easy to read, highly informative, and very enjoyable overall. I especially enjoyed reading about the Chudnovskys and the rivals in the Human Genome Project. Happy reading to all!
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Charlie on June 11, 2008
Format: Hardcover
About: Preston, author of The Hot Zone (a book I loved) presents a collection of expanded essays that were originally published in the New Yorker.

He describes his writing and interviewing methods in the introduction and describes his visit to a Level 4 lab (where the deadliest viruses are). A sentence I thought was particularly choice: "A cold virus particle on the base of an eyelash hair would be like a peanut sitting by the Washington Monument." (pg xxxvi)

Mountains of Pi describes 2 number theorist brothers, David and Gregory Chudnovsky and their quest to calculate pi using a supercomputer they built themselves in their apartment. Gives a great look at how intricate and fascinating pi is.

A Death in the Forest tells the tale of the decimation of hemlock trees due to a pest known as the woody adelgid.

The Search for Ebola covers territory familiar to those who have read The Hot Zone, and details the search for the original animal host of the Ebola virus.

The Human Kabbalah profiles J. Craig Venter , the founder of the biotechnology company Celera and the battle with the National Institutes of Health in decoding the human genome.

The Lost Unicorn takes us to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where they are having trouble digitizing a large tapestry from circa 1600, enter the Chudnovsky brothers from the Mountains of Pi chapter.

The Self-Cannibals is an engaging chapter introduces us to several suffers of Lesch-Nyhan Syndrome, a genetic disease that causes compulsive self-harming behaviors like chewing off lips or fingers.

Pros: Very well written. Even with the varied topics, all are interesting.

Cons: The chapter on Ebola is rather short considering that the book's title and cover artwork seem to make it out as a large portion of the book, which may put off those wanting a Hot Zone like tale.
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