"Our sense of wonder grows exponentially; the greater the knowledge, the deeper the mystery."

-- E.O. Wilson

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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Level 4 Preston

Truth is stranger than fiction.... indeed.

"Panic In Level 4" by Richard Preston

I'm not sure it's possible for Richard Preston to write anything other than gripping, page-turning non-fiction. Whatever topics he tackles he brings to intense, memorable life for the reader. Preston hit the big time in 1994 with his international harrowing best-seller, "The Hot Zone," on the African Ebola virus. His last work, "Panic In Level 4," (the title derives from the "Hot Zone" volume) is now out in paperback, and is a compendium of several of his pieces, originally published in the New Yorker Magazine. These six wide-ranging expositions share little in common other than Preston's vivid, engaging narrative.

As a math fan, I particularly liked chapter 1 of this volume, on the Russian Chudnovsky brothers and their investigation of the number pi, employing a super computer they built from scratch in their Manhattan apartment (those less enthralled by math, and particularly number theory, may actually find this the driest chapter of the book). And after computing pi to over 2 billion digits they still found no pattern or hidden meaning to the most famous transcendental number that exists. Such is the nature of higher level number theory, and such is frequently the quirkiness of genius-level mathematicians as found in these two siblings.

Chapter 2 switches gears to cover the catastrophic decline in eastern hemlocks due to an invasive parasite.

Chapter 3, "The Search For Ebola," is not for the faint of heart, and may be redundant for those who have read Preston's earlier work, but still is chilling.

Chapter 4 jumps to the controversial Craig Venter and his deciphering of the human genome. Venter's early life before turning to medicine and science is especially interesting, but so are the later machinations between himself, James Watson, and Francis Collins, all of human genome fame. A very interesting portrait of one of the most polemical and brilliant scientific figures of our times.

Chapter 5 is a quirky entry on seven famous medieval "Unicorn Tapestries" held in a New York museum. Oddly, before the chapter is over, the Chudnovsky brothers of chapter 1 appear once again, applying their computer genius to these works of art. Artists will no doubt especially enjoy this chapter.

Chapter 6 is on the bizarre genetic metabolic defect of Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, which causes those afflicted to horribly self-mutilate and disfigure themselves. It is rare enough that many people have never even heard of it, but those who have, let alone those who have witnessed it, likely can't put it out of their minds, and it remains largely mysterious, evading a medical cure.

I probably most enjoyed chapters 1 and 4 here, but all are equally well written and reader favorites will vary depending on one's own predilections.

This book is a fabulous and quick read from one of the best science explicators writing today... or maybe it should be thought of as 6 fabulous reads or vignettes because it is a bit disjointed with its sudden chapter-to-chapter subject changes, that cause a bit of a jolt as one moves along. I give it an "A-" rating, and wonder in anticipation what pray tell, is Preston working on next? ...It's safe to assume it'll be good!

Another review of the volume HERE.

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