Richard Preston’s Panic in Level 4: Cannibals, Killer Viruses and Other Journeys to the Edge of Science reads like Preston decided he needed to publish another book and threw together a bunch of old essays. Preston is well-known for his science writing, including his thriller Hot Zone.
Panic in Level 4 combines essays on the Chudnovskys, genius brothers who built a supercomputer in a cramped NYC apartment in order to calculate pi as far as possible in their quest to discern some sort of pattern; Preston’s old friend Ebola and his visit inside a Level 4 lab and own brush with the virus; the Unicorn tapestries at the Cloisters and the incredibly difficult attempt to render them digitally for preservation; self-cannibals; Craig Venter’s part in decoding the human genome; and insect parasites destroying huge parts of American forests.
Some of the essays were more interesting than others. I enjoy a good killer virus tale, so I liked the Level 4 essay, and the Cloisters one was pretty interesting. I found the Chudnovskys’ attempt to find over a billion digits of Pi confusing and quixotic, but I’ve stated before that I’m no mathematician. You can’t argue with how well-written the essays are, but they have little relationship to each other and it’s jarring. The book isn’t cohesive at all, which I guess is acceptable since it’s not a narrative. I wonder if the book could have been structured differently. For example, there was a reference to the self-cannibalism disease in the Venter essay, and then the last chapter of the book was about that disease. It was jarring to me to read the mention of the disease and then discover the full story later on.
The book simply wasn’t what I thought it would be.