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Richard Preston 'Journeys to the Edge of Science'

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Richard Preston 'Journeys to the Edge of Science'


Richard Preston 'Journeys to the Edge of Science'

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Now, my next guest. He is a kind of guy who, when he is about to step into one of the country's highest security biosecurity labs, a place you'd never find me, he thinks to grab his reporter's notebook and mechanical pencil on the way in ready to record what he is about to see. And he has been into some really interesting - that is for lack of a better scary word - places.

His stories have taken him into labs that are in close contact with one of the deadly viruses around, into the tops of the world's highest trees, labs of some of the world's most notable scientists, and the apartment - the apartment of a Russian mathematician building a supercomputer to crunch the number of Pi, the number Pi, how many digits can you get it to find some sort of hidden order there.

Richard Preston brought us the story of the Ebola virus in the "Hot Zone" and small pox in the "Demon in the Freezer." And now he's put all these new stories together in his book, "Panic in Level 4," and it includes a story about cannibals, but in this case, it's people who eat themselves. Richard Preston is here, and welcome back to Science Friday.

Mr. RICHARD PRESTON (Author, "Panic in Level 4"): Hello, Ira.

FLATOW: People, that is the last chapter in your book, close to the last chapter in the book, if I remember.

Mr. PRESTON: Yes. I suppose I wouldn't recommend anybody to read that last chapter before eating dinner.

FLATOW: Yes, I'll give a lunch alert here. What drives you to go to these really dangerous places?

Mr. PRESTON: Well, I think it's probably some kind of ridiculous personal obsession. I don't think anybody really writes a book unless they have obsession about the material. And I love exploring the mysterious, tattered margins of some of science where reporters rarely go and where mysteries remain unsolved. I think, one of the things that we don't learn about science in school is that science is really not about facts as much as it is about mystery and about not knowing. And I love to cover the quest of people in science who try to answer questions that may, in fact, be unanswerable, and they often put their lives on the line for this and in order to write about them, I sometimes have to go where they go.

FLATOW: This is Talk of the Nation, Science Friday from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Richard Preston, author of "Panic in Level 4: Cannibals, Killer Viruses and Other Journeys to the Edge of Science." It is also just out. How do find the story ideas for some of these really interesting places?

Mr. PRESTON: I really don't know. I absolutely have no idea.

FLATOW: That is good. If they are continuing to come, that is a good thing, if you don't know that. You don't have to look for them.

Mr. PRESTON: I think that like many writers, you know, I have a sort of attic of ideas, and sometimes things fall out of the attic.

FLATOW: Let's talk about some of the unusual stories. Of course, remember when you talked about the Ebola virus? Didn't you feel your life in jeopardy or putting you really in harm's way at any point in that?

Mr. PRESTON: Well, that was a sort of a very creepy incident that occurred while I was researching the "Hot Zone", the book. And I chose not to talk about it in the book because I wanted the book to focus on the people, not on the writer. But what happened was, I put a lot of requests in to the Army to let me go into a Biosafety Level 4 Hot Zone at Fort Dietrich in Maryland where they working with real Ebola and other dangerous viruses. Now, this is spacesuit laboratory where you put in a full-pressurized suit and then you go through an air-locked door into this hot zone. Eventually, they relented, and I went in with two younger researchers, a man and a woman. I was told as I was going in, you know, you can bring your notebook and your pencil in, but they will never come out except as a melted lump.

And so they gave me a sheet of Teflon to write on, to take notes on. And then they gave me a Bic pen when I got into the hot area. It was a hot-zone pen that would never leave the hot zone except as a melted lump of plastic. We got in there, and I had put on a spacesuit. The researchers were all using spacesuits that had their names on them that were strung up on a wall in the staging area. And I get in there, and I had a spacesuit without a name on it. It was a loner.

FLATOW: You must have been a little suspicious of those loners.

Mr. PRESTON: I am now. And they were doing research into human blood samples of an individual who had died of an unknown X - apparent unknown X virus that had Marburg-like characteristics. Marburg is a type of Ebola. So, the person who died had blood streaming from their orifices. They were trying to characterize the virus, identify what it might be. And I was looking through the microscope when, all of a sudden, my spacesuit collapsed around me and lost pressure. And I looked down but couldn't see anything because of my helmet, began feeling around with my gloves and suddenly discovered that I was feeling my bare chest.

My spacesuit had fallen wide open. It burst open in the hot zone. This was an old crummy piece of military hardware that didn't have anybody's name on it. So, I stood up and I said to one of the researchers, hey, do I have a problem here? And his face told the story. And he moved across the room very rapidly, and he pushed my suit together. These spacesuits have a zipper just like a Ziploc bag. It had popped way open. So, he got me patched up and then I re-pressurized. And then, of course, what I was thinking was, oh, my gosh! I am a stupid idiot. What are you doing in Level 4 for a book?

FLATOW: Right, right. 1-800-989-8255, talking with Richard Preston, author of "Panic in Level 4." And of course, level 4 is the most - what? It's the highest level of...

Mr. PRESTON: Biosafety Level 4 is the highest level of biosecurity.

FLATOW: It's where those hoods and things that you were talking about.

Mr. PRESTON: Right. They used pretty high-tech equipment to try to contain these organisms that, were they to get out, could do some damage in the human species and also could do some damage to the researchers.

FLATOW: Tell me about this search for Pi. You write so well about trying to get Pi so high. You know, people try to find inner meaning in Pi. Are these people nuts, I mean, what is this?

Mr. PRESTON: This is maybe my favorite story of all.

FLATOW: Yes, you read it...

Mr. PRESTON: Two Russian brothers, David and Gregory Chudnovsky, live in New York City. They claim to be a single mathematician who by chance occupies two human bodies.

FLATOW: Details, details.

Mr. PRESTON: Yes, details. Gregory, the younger brother, has a wasting disease that keeps him in bed or in a wheelchair most of the time. So, when he walks around, he's often supported by his brother, Gregory. At the time that I first met them, they were building a supercomputer in their apartment out of mail-order parts. The place was just - the entire apartment was occupied by computing equipment along with Gregory's mother and his wife. They had 26 fans running to cool the computer. And they had a meat thermometer stuck into parts of it. And they said, they explained that if the meat thermometer got the pork, you had to be worried about the machine.

FLATOW: That's 160. I've got to stop you right there, because now that you've set the stage, it's a great story. I don't want to have to interrupt you again. So, now we'll get back. We have to take a break. We'll come back and talk to us more with Richard Preston, author of "Panic in Level 4," also you may know him by the best-selling book of "The Hot Zone." We'll hear the rest of that interesting story about the search for Pi and take your calls, so stay with us. We'll be right back. I'm Ira Flatow. This is Talk of the Nation's Science Friday from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to Talk of the Nation: Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about living, sort of reporting on the edge "Panic in Level 4: Cannibals, Killer Viruses, and Other Journeys to the Edge of Science," and that is written by Richard Preston, the author of the book.

Brief program note before we continue. On Wednesday, here's your opportunity to sit in on a live version of Talk of the Nation. Neal Conan is going to be back at the Newseum in Washington. And if you're going to be in Washington and you want tickets to join the audience, send an email to And when I interrupted you, Richard, he was telling us, setting us up about these two guys living in an apartment filled with all kinds of computers looking to solve Pi.

Mr. PRESTON: Yes, two mathematicians named Gregory and David Chudnovsky.

FLATOW: Is that their real names?

Mr. PRESTON: Real names, yes. And they're respected, well-known mathematicians. Gregory Chudnovsky, the younger brother, the one who mostly has to lie in bed is, in fact, one of the world's leading designers of supercomputers. And he appears to be able to design them in his head the way Mozart wrote music. At any rate, they were using this homemade supercomputer to compute Pi to more than two billion decimal places. Now the number Pi is the ratio of the diameter of a circle to its own circumference and if you take the number and you express it in digits because 3.14159 and on and on and on to infinity, it never ends. There's a curious problem involving Pi here because the digits of Pi have no apparent random, no apparent design or order in them.

They appear perfectly random ad infinitum and yet the circle is perhaps the most perfect object known in mathematics. So, why should the ratio of the diameter to the circumference be so apparently totally disorganized? Why? This is a problem that I think most mathematicians would say that there is a design or a pattern in Pi, but that they can see no conceivable way that any computer or mathematical tool could ever see the order in Pi in our universe. But nevertheless, the Chudnovskys were trying and where they defined a glimpse of an order in Pi, it would be like getting a glimpse of the face of God.

FLATOW: And so they continue to this day?

Mr. PRESTON: No, they have a fairly limited attention span. And so want two billion decimals into Pi. And they got tired of looking, and they moved on to other, perhaps, more interesting problems.

FLATOW: In fact, according from your book, "I asked Gregory if an impression I had of mathematicians was true, that they spend a certain amount of time to clearing one another's work trivial, and he say it's true. He admitted there's actually a reason for this because once you know the solution to a problem, it usually is trivial." So, he must have decided that it was already enough, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PRESTON: Yes. I have a lot of trouble taking notes with these guys. You know, I take notes long hand. I don't use a tape recorder, and I got Ds in math in high school, and I never went on with math in college. And I was listening to these very sophisticated statements about higher mathematics. Well, I found out the way to deal with it was I took careful notes, couldn't understand a word of them, and then took them to another leading mathematician, a certain Herbert Robbins, who walked me through areas of higher mathematics and essentially taught me what I needed to know.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255, before time gets away, we have plenty of time, I want to make sure you talk about the case of the cannibalism that was discovered in hospitals. It's very - really fascinating.

Mr. PRESTON: Yeah, this is a genetic disease that is probably one of the grimmest diseases I've ever seen or even heard of. The genetic disease, of course, is a disease that we inherit in our genes. And the syndrome is called the Lesch-Nyhan Syndrome, after the two doctors who discovered it at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1962 and a little boy was brought in and he had some pretty serious problems. He'd been diagnosed with having cerebral palsy, but that wasn't the problem at all. He had been chewing off his extremities.

FLATOW: Literally chewing?

Mr. PRESTON: Biting off his portions of his fingers. He had bitten off portions of his lips, and he was engaging in very subtle and somewhat terrifying acts of self-destruction, self-sabotage, in which he would - he would do things that would, you know, he would injure himself very purposefully, or he would lash out people he liked. And I now, have spent time with people with the Lesch-Nyhan Syndrome, the self-cannibalism disease, and it's true that, you know, that a Lesch-Nyhan person likes you when he starts taking swings at you.

FLATOW: And the impression I got was that these people don't want to keep doing this. They have no control. They can't stop themselves.

Mr. PRESTON: No, when they attack other people, they apologize profusely.

FLATOW: What about eating themselves and...

Mr. PRESTON: And they're absolutely terrified of their own self attacks. They feel as if their hands are not a part of their body, but are under the control of some demon outside themselves.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. PRESTON: One of them told me that he bites his hands in order to scare them away from his face. This particular guy that I got to know, James Elrod.

FLATOW: Is that James Elrod?

Mr. PRESTON: James Elrod had been left alone for a couple of minutes by an attendant. He was in a state hospital and the attendant was inexperienced. And in just a couple of minutes, James' left hand picked up a fork, and used it to cut his nose off.

FLATOW: Wow. And you write that James would frequently warn you about getting too close.

Mr. PRESTON: Yeah, he would say danger, danger. He would get this look in his eyes.

FLATOW: I might hurt you, don't get too close.

Mr. PRESTON: Yeah, but I found that I really like these people. I got to be friends with them. They - you know, they live with an almost unbearable disability, and yet they had a kind of nobility and courage about them. They had this capacity to enjoy life that was remarkable. The disease itself is a mystery. It's a really deep, puzzling mystery. It's caused by the alteration of a single letter in the human DNA.

So, 3.2 billion letters in the human code, 25,000 active genes, and if you change a single letter there, the person in the wrong place, the person develops this striking spectacular behavioral syndrome, which is governed entirely by the writing in the DNA. The Lesch-Nyhan Syndrome is the most striking example of this kind of disease, where human behavior is altered by a gene. And it is a kind Rosetta Stone for human behavior. If we can only understand what happens when people chew on themselves, or attack themselves this way, we might have insights and deal with lots of human behavior.

FLATOW: There are not very many pictures, or graphs, or photos in the book, but you do have a really stark photo of that patient.

Mr. PRESTON: Yeah, I have a very, very stark photograph.

FLATOW: Is there a reason you purposely put that in the book?

Mr. PRESTON: Well, I got the photograph from Dr. William Nyhan, the discoverer of the disease, who said it would be OK to use it. And it's just chilling, I mean, it's not a photograph you even want to look at before you eat dinner.

FLATOW: No, yeah.

Mr. PRESTON: But it shows a young boy, who was beloved by his caretakers, Jay-Jay, originally from New Hampshire. He lived in the laboratory of William Nyhan for several years, and he had - with his hands, he had torn out, picked away all of the upper pallet in his face. And so he has nothing left in the center of his face. His nose is gone, much of his mouth and there's just basically a huge hole there. And then he had bitten off his fingers.

FLATOW: And you play a major part in the story, and you took them out of the hospital, offroading in a dry lakebed in California?

Mr. PRESTON: Yeah, this was originally an article for the New Yorker, and it was a ridiculously long time to write it. It took me seven years to write this thing, because I had to somehow find a way to connect with the humanity of these people. I couldn't make them into freaks. They're not freaks. And I ended up - it turned out they're real guys-guys, people with this disease, and they love offroading.

So, we went offroading and we went out into a lake. And against the advice of a police officer, I drove them out into the middle of a dried lakebed, which turned out to be actually a quicksand. We got stuck in the quicksand, and then when I started calling towing companies, I found out nobody would come get us. So, I had these two disabled guys in wheelchairs, in the middle of a quicksand lake with no way out. And the interesting thing was that the Lesch-Nyhan guys just had a wonderful time. And they're absolutely delighted at what I had done, because they saw an example of their own self-destructive behavior in me. They got a huge kick out of that. There is a little bit of Lesch-Nyhan in all of us.

FLATOW: Self-destructive behavior.

Mr. PRESTON: Yes, exactly, self-destructive behavior. We all do things that we can't control, that we regret and wish we could stop. One of the neurologist who studies these people, explained it to me this way. He said, you know, there are lots of people in the world who bite their nails, and don't like it, but can't stop it. And there are other people who bite their cuticles until they bleed. And then many people, when they're nervous, bite their lips. Now, imagine that as being a kind of feedback system in the brain. Now turn the volume way, way up until it's screaming loud, and you have a Lesch-Nyhan person.

FLATOW: Mm-hm. 1-800-989-8255, talking with Richard Preston, author of "Panic in Level 4." I mean, there's so much to talk about in this book. But are you already on to the next topic, are you researching new things or what?

Mr. PRESTON: Well, I'm always, you know, playing around with things, and sometimes stories don't go anywhere. You know, I often will do a lot of preliminary interviews and I'll think, gee, I don't know, or I'll come back to it later. The Lesch-Nyhan story was like that. I just kept coming back to it.

FLATOW: It's a long time, you said nine years?

Mr. PRESTON: Seven years to write one stupid magazine. I couldn't believe it.

FLATOW: That's a long - that's a lot of writer's block. Or it was just a lot of research?

Mr. PRESTON: It wasn't really writer's block. It was - sometimes you just have to play a waiting game. It's like fishing, you just have to find your way. This material was so deep and so difficult to handle.

FLATOW: You had to wait for it to click in in your head.

Mr. PRESTON: Yeah, I had to find a way through the maze.

FLATOW: Yeah. What's your second favorite story in the book?

Mr. PRESTON: Well, let me see, it may be the story about the mathematicians.


Mr. PRESTON: There's a - I come back to them.

FLATOW: You do.

Mr. PRESTON: They moved on from pi, and some years ago, at the Cloisters Museum, the Medieval Museum in New York City, they have the seven Unicorn Tapestries which are the most - some of them was beautiful works of art from the middle ages. They displayed the hunt of the unicorn. They were made around 1500 in northern France or Holland. And they took them down from the walls. These tapestries are worth any - something like a billion dollars. Nobody knows what they're worth, really.

FLATOW: Uh-huh.. And then they found that they couldn't knit the mosaic together into a digital image. And the problem was that the tapestries, when they had been removed from the wall, were like something alive. They had moved and breathed while they were being photographed. They had changed their shape even in three dimensions.


Mr. PRESTON: And so, it happens that the Chudnovsky brothers got involved with this, and they built a new supercomputer, they call this one the Home Depot Machine, because it has lots of parts from Home Depot. And they're doing this exceedingly sophisticated work with number theory. They managed to somehow, rather, make the largest digital image of any object that's ever been made, the Unicorn Tapestries.

FLATOW: Wow. This is Talk of the Nation: Science Friday from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Richard Preston, author of "Panic in Level 4." We just have a couple of more minutes. But I want to talk about the trees of North America have been hit with all sorts of Ebolas of their own. I thought that was really surprising.

Mr. PRESTON: It was very surprising to me. Lately, one of my - my previous book was about Climbing in Redwood Trees in California. So, I learned how to climb these super tall trees. And while I was doing this, I heard that an ancient rainforest in the East was threatened by a disease, an invading disease. And who even knew that there are rainforest in the East?


Mr. PRESTON: This is in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

FLATOW: I knew about the Olympic Peninsula, but (unintelligible).

Mr. PRESTON: Yeah, but not in the East. I didn't even know about this.

FLATOW: Yeah, sure, sure.

Mr. PRESTON: And the tree is the Eastern Hemlock tree, which is now - its very existence as a species is being threatened by an alien invader, a little insect that is just wiping these trees out, turning these tracks of virgin rainforest into gray skeletons like dead coral reefs. So, I ended up climbing in these trees and looking around and seeing, and trying to learn what was happening.

And interestingly, or sort of horrifyingly, the bigger picture is that what's happening to the trees of North America, not just the hemlocks, but many other species, the American Elm, the chestnut, many others, is exactly the same thing that's happening to the human species with the emergence of new infectious diseases. With global-climate change, and with the movement of human populations around the planet, ecosystems are getting homogenized. And invasive microorganisms and parasites are moving into new hosts, so that what we're seeing with, say, the outbreak of, you know, Ebola virus, SARS, all these new emerging infectious diseases, it's just a very small corner of a larger, kind of global-sized disturbance of ecosystems.

FLATOW: Yeah, we see invasive species - beetles coming from China, other places just chewing up the forests.

Mr. PRESTON: Absolutely, yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah, yeah.

Mr. PRESTON: The American Elm is by no means, the only one. There are a number of species of ash trees in America, and they're all thoroughly endangered by the - a little invading beetle that's coming from Asia.

FLATOW: Is that the Asian Longhorned Beetle?

Mr. PRESTON: There's one - that's one, and this is the Asian, what is it called, the Emerald Borer. And the - you know, among other things, the major league baseball bat may be doomed, because it's made of ash wood.

FLATOW: Well, we're going to these maples that's splattered - shattered. I'm not crazy about somewhat here. I love the old ones, so I'm not happy to hear about that. Well, this is a fascinating book and it's interesting reading, and what I like about it is, you can read it in small chunks, because you have a lot of different chapters, a lot of different parts in there. And I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today.

Mr. PRESTON: Good to be with you.

FLATOW: And I look forward to wherever that creative beat goes off in your head, right? That it'll take to the most dangerous place and we'll know you've arrived. Thanks for taking time to be with us today. We're talking with Richard Preston, author of "Panic in Level 4: Cannibals, Killer Viruses, and Other Journeys to the Edge of Science." I really highly recommend it. Thanks again, Richard, for being with us today.

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