A collection of science essays first published in the New Yorker, here brought up to date and lightly threaded together.
Preston (The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring, 2007, etc.) opens with an introduction, “Adventures in Nonfiction Writing,” that returns to the frightening world of viruses explored in The Hot Zone (1994), to demonstrate how he researches and shapes his work, sometimes under extraordinary circumstances. At one point, he shares his feelings of horror when the zipper on his biohazard suit breaks while he is inside Biosafety Level 4 at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. He offers a bloody, stomach-churning account of what a virus can do to the human body in “The Search for Ebola,” centered on Kikwit General Hospital in the Congo. Mortality is again the focus in “A Death in the Forest,” but this time the agent is a tiny brown parasitic insect, and its victim is the eastern hemlock, once found in abundance in temperate rain forests in the southern Appalachians. This story takes Preston valiantly bushwhacking through the Cataloochee Valley and climbing 160-foot trees with an arborist to witness and record the devastation. “The Human Kabbalah,” which focuses on Craig Venter and the business and technology behind the deciphering of the human genome, is loosely linked to “The Self-Cannibals,” which tackles a genetic disorder that causes those who have it to attack themselves brutally. While the tone of the former is at times acerbic, the latter piece includes a moving portrait of two sufferers the author befriended. “The Mountains of Pi” sympathetically profiles two eccentric mathematicians who designed and built a supercomputer from mail-order parts in a Manhattan apartment to calculate pi to a world-record-setting number of digits: 2,260,321,336. They return in “The Lost Unicorn,” which recounts how their expertise enabled them to capture digital images of large medieval tapestries for The Cloisters museum.
Well researched, well paced and accessible.