Monday, September 8, 2008

Weird Science

One off letter of genetic code that causes people with this rare condition to cannibalize themselves--how do they survive? Two Russian brothers who consider themselves to be one mathematician with two bodies. One of the men behind the race to crack the code of the human genome, his motivations and obsessions. Panic in Level 4: Cannibals, Killer Viruses, and Other Journeys to the Edge of Science by Richard Preston is advertised as science writing, but it is also fundamentally about people.

Preston's introduction to this collection of short pieces (all previously published in The New Yorker magazine, but updated & loosely connected for this book) gives some insight into his process when approaching a new topic. He is a journalist, but considers his writing creative/narrative nonfiction, and the people he writes about his characters, not his subjects. Preston writes about immersing himself in the worlds of his characters in order to get a better understanding of their lives, their work, and their humanity--not only through extensive interviews and detailed notes, but by trying to experience what they experience as much as he can. He doesn't just ask what its like to go into a lab wearing a pressurized suit and face one of the world's deadliest viruses--he does it. He climbs into the canopies of some of the tallest forests in the United States. He tries to paint a well-rounded picture of his characters--not just the basic facts, but the feelings behind the facts (what DOES it feel like when your suit rips in a level 4 hot lab?). He is also writing about some very intriguing bits of science. Preston's approach may be something you want to consider if you aspire to write engaging nonfiction.

The pieces in this book can be read separately, though Preston does connect them. While self-cannibalism and the search for the host of the Ebola virus may sound more exciting than a homemade computer calculating pi to billions of digits or what's killing hemlock trees off by the thousands (depending on who you are and what you consider exciting), all of the pieces feature interesting people and fascinating science. If you enjoy the Ebola or tree pieces in particular, you might want to check out Preston's other books. His "dark biology" trilogy includes the nonfiction works The Hot Zone and Demon in the Freezer, as well as the novel The Cobra Event. All three books deal with deadly viruses and threats of bioterrorism. The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring focuses on the alien world of California Redwoods. Preston's web site includes a "climbing wild trees" photo gallery, as well as listings of all of his New Yorker articles (check with your local library to see if they're avaialbe in a full-text database). Real science is often stranger than fiction, and Preston shows here that the people behind that science can be as interesting as the science itself.

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