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Originally published Friday, June 6, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Panic in Level 4": even stranger than science fiction

A bizarre disease called Lesch-Nyhan Syndrome causes its victims to bite off their own fingers and lips, puncture their eyes and disfigure...

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Richard Preston

The author will discuss his book "Panic in Level 4" at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle; sponsored by the University Book Store; $5 (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).

A bizarre disease called Lesch-Nyhan Syndrome causes its victims to bite off their own fingers and lips, puncture their eyes and disfigure their faces. Most of the victims are intelligent and sociable young males (it's transmitted only in male chromosomes) who die at an early age. It's one of many genetic disorders doctors call "orphan diseases," in that hardly anyone is studying them, and it's one of the topics in Richard Preston's new book, "Panic in Level 4: Cannibals, Killer Viruses, and Other Journeys to the Edge of Science" (Random House, 240 pp., $26). Preston's readers get to know some of the likable victims of Lesch-Nyhan Syndrome and some of the doctors specializing in it.

This is a collection of six stories originally published in The New Yorker, updated and expanded for the book. It includes an article on the killer virus called Ebola, the subject of Preston's 1994 best-seller, "The Hot Zone," which reports on the continuing efforts to track down the horrific virus in Central Africa, and the self-sacrificing bravery of Ebola caregivers.

Each topic is interwoven with a common theme, that of scientific research. In "The Human Kabbalah," Preston relates the dogfight nature of competition between government and corporate researchers to reveal the structure of human DNA and to publish the first reliable map of the human genome.

In a good-humored and emotional story he calls "The Mountains of Pi," Preston profiles two wonderfully eccentric brothers, David and Gregory Chudnovsky, "a single mathematician who happened to inhabit two bodies." They built the world's most powerful computer in a New York apartment, from mail-order catalogs. They used it to set a world's record for computing pi, the transcendentally mysterious equation defining the circumference of a circle. They surveyed pi to 2,260,321,336 digits, hoping to find a numerical pattern. There was none.

A Seattle angle to the story: The Ukrainian-born Chudnovskys, acknowledged as two of the world's best mathematicians, were persecuted by the Soviet KGB in the 1970s. They were allowed to leave the Soviet Union only through intervention by the late Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson and University of Washington mathematician Ed Hewitt.

In "A Death in the Forest," Preston reports on the losing struggle to save the tallest trees of America's Eastern forests from a voracious insect called the hemlock woolly adelgid, an Asian import for which there are no known predators in this country, nor — so far — any practical chemical controls.

Exhibiting the range of his reporting interests, Preston also tells the story of seven ancient tapestries known as the "Hunt of the Unicorn" that hang in the Cloisters museum in New York City. He recounts the scientific challenge of producing a precisely accurate photograph of the tapestries, for which the museum hired the amazing Chudnovsky brothers and their world-renowned homegrown computer.

The book's title is drawn from the author's experience at Level Four of the U.S. Ebola research headquarters in Atlanta. Preston relates his own barely controlled panic in discovering an open zipper on the super-protective suit he was wearing in a laboratory where live Ebola viruses are kept.

The "panic" event is part of a 30-page introduction based on the journalist's personal experiences. It includes a short primer on literary journalism, in which Preston explains his reporting techniques, down to the type of pencil and notebook he uses. Little of this material appears to be especially unusual or important. His first-person writing seems awkwardly self-conscious, in contrast to the bright, compelling voice in which Preston tells other-person stories of high scientific adventure.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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