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Seriously, Read a Book!

Thoughts on books, often interpreted through the high-brow prism of cartoon (read: Archer) references. Wait! I had something for this...

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Panic in Level 4: Cannibals, Killer Viruses, and Other Journeys to the Edge of Science

Panic in Level 4: Cannibals, Killer Viruses, and Other Journeys to the Edge of Science - Richard Preston

In introducing this collection of essays, Richard Preston reflects on the nature and constraints of writing narrative non-fiction. Basically, Preston is using Panic as an opportunity to add to or modify his pieces (many of which originally appeared as articles in The New Yorker) and give the reader a fuller sense of things that, for whatever reason, were left unsaid at the time. The first example of this (to which the title refers) being his potential exposure to a Level 4 hazardous disease, possibly a strain of Ebola, while doing his research for The Hot Zone (an anecdote he omitted in the book in order to maintain a “proper” distance from the subject of his writing).


Mountains of Pi:

Technology evolves at an exponential pace (at least according to Ray Kurzweil), so I finally had to stop part-way into this story to find its original date of publication (as it turns out, March 2, 1992). It’s not that reflections on research in computer science and mathematics from twenty years ago is irrelevant, I simply needed a point of reference.


This is a profile of two brothers, David and Gregory Volfovich Chudnovsky, who built a supercomputer in their apartment in pursuit of pi. They are certainly an interesting pair, Russian immigrants who are so close that they describe themselves as “a single mathematician who, by chance, occupy two human bodies.”


Chudnovsky Brothers


I did not have an easy time “getting into” this story. Part of it, of course, is that I am not a theoretical mathematician. However, one of the things I love about an author like Douglas Hofstadter (though he and Preston do not necessarily address the same content) is his use of analogy to give his readers the opportunity to grab on to something to help them build a mental model for understanding the idea of a theory or subject they might not otherwise be able to comprehend. Preston jumps quickly to the notion of seeing God through pi, and to referring to numbers and equations as beautiful and transcendental, but without giving me the leg up I required to get a feel for what that might mean. For example:

The Chudnovsky formula for pi is thought to be "extremely beautiful" by persons who have a good feel for numbers.

I'm sure that there are plenty of people who would find this to be a fascinating essay (probably people “who have a good feel for numbers”) and, indeed, I found the characters interesting enough, but I just never got the foothold I needed in order to enjoy it per se.  


All those other essays:

It's a testament to just how much I did not enjoy this book that I'm having trouble mustering the energy to go through the next several essays piece by piece. A Death in the Forest (about invasive exotics, in this case, the wooly adelgid) and The Human Kabbalah (which discusses the human genome project) just felt like old news to me. 


The Search For Ebola was most interesting in its reflections on human fallibility (in this case, doctors' knee-jerk responses to help patients that, at times, put them in direct contact with the virus). With regard to The Lost Unicorn, as I whined about (perhaps excessively) in my review of Horns of Honor, my ninth-grade field trip to and focus on the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries have pretty much burnt me out on all things regarding said tapestries for the rest of my life. 


The Self Cannibals:

Ok, so it would be hard to make this one uninteresting. I hate the title, as it all at once sensationalizes and actually diminishes the magnitude of its subject, Lesch-Nyhan Syndrome which (and I'm oversimplifying here) is a sex-linked genetic disorder that causes the individuals to be self destructive (in capacities both physical and mental). 


The patient in the photo below (which I believe is from around 1987), is outfitted with a special helmet and "limited motion elbow orthoses" to prevent him from engaging in any number of possible behaviors. The possibilities are, of course, limitless. At one point, one of the subjects interviewed by Preston asks him to get rid of his pencil because he worries that he'll stab it through his hand.  


Lesch Nyhan patient with custom helmet and limited motion elbow orthoses.


Though the individuals involved in this essay were interesting and "timeless" in their own way, I was left feeling like I was only getting part of the scientific picture. Advances in deep brain stimulation and the like, while certainly nowhere near "solving" the mysteries of a syndrome as complex as Lesch-Nyhan, have revealed much about mental feedback loops relating to emotion and impulse control etc- enough that I found myself wanting to interrupt the written dialogue. 


I guess, then, it's my own lack of impulse control that left me feeling so annoyed by this last in Preston's collection of essays. However, overall, I just felt like this wasn't particularly good science writing.