Richard Preston, a science writer for the New Yorker, is best known for his 1994 nonfiction thriller The Hot Zone (about the Ebola virus). We also reviewed The Demon in the Freezer (about smallpox; Jan/Feb 2003) and The Wild Trees (about California’s redwoods; July/Aug 2007).
The Topic: Most readers probably know Richard Preston for his work on terrifying and rare diseases like Ebola or anthrax. Such microbes make an appearance in Panic in Level 4, a collection of articles on science that were all previously published in the New Yorker. One of the essays concerns a search for the animal host of Ebola; another explores a bizarre disease that produces "self-cannibals." Other pieces explore additional new frontiers in science and the people who continue to expand them—from genetic entrepreneur Craig Venter to a pair of Russian immigrants who built, from mail-order catalogs, a supercomputer in their New York apartment to search for patterns in that most transcendent numeral, pi.
Random House. 240 pages. $26. ISBN: 1400064902
"Preston’s lens always has a dual focus: the scientist and what drives him, and the work he is attempting to accomplish and how the two mesh. … His scientific writing feels like a religious journey of sorts, not really a search for God, but rather an appreciation of what seems almost God-like within each man." Elaine Margolin
"Some fairly weighty technical aspects are translated into easily digestible sentences, and descriptions are heavier on detail than on flowery adjectives. The downside of Preston’s style may be that its stark nature serves to highlight the dour tone of much of the book’s subject." Bryan Bailey
"Another essay—there are six of them here—talks about the ‘functional extinction’ of old growth trees that have thrived for centuries. … The miracle in all this bad news is that there are pockets of young scientists hot on its trail." Mandy Twaddell
"Each topic is interwoven with a common theme, that of scientific research. … [Preston’s] first-person writing [in the long introduction based on his own experiences] seems awkwardly self-conscious, in contrast to the bright, compelling voice in which Preston tells other-person stories of high scientific adventure." Bob Simmons
Reviewers had few complaints about Panic in Level 4, and they were usually of the sort that accompany any book assembled from a series of magazine pieces. They found much more to be impressed by—from Preston’s excellent, insightful character studies to his ability to master so many different kinds of knowledge. But perhaps more significant for readers who only know Preston from The Hot Zone was the absence of inside-the-cover blurbs like "thrilling" and "action-packed." Critics clearly agreed that Panic in Level 4 is excellent science writing. But since it is science writing rather than a page-turner, readers looking for another Hot Zone may want to look elsewhere.