Preston, Richard. Panic in Level 4. New York: Random House, 2008. ISBN 978-0-8129-7560-4.
The New Yorker is one of the few remaining markets for long-form reportage of specialised topics directed at an intelligent general audience, and Richard Preston is one of the preeminent practitioners of that craft working today. This book collects six essays originally published in that magazine along with a new introduction as long as some of the chapters which describes the title incident in which the author found himself standing space-suit to protein coat of a potentially unknown hæmorrhagic fever virus in a U.S. Army hot lab. He also provides tips on his style of in-depth, close and personal journalism (which he likens to “climb[ing] into the soup”), which aspiring writers may find enlightening.

In subsequent chapters we encounter the Chudnovsky brothers, émigré number theorists from the Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union), who built a supercomputer in their New York apartment from mail-order components to search for structure in the digits of π, and later used their mathematical prowess and computing resources to digitally “stitch” together and thereby make a backup copy of The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries; the mercurial Craig Venter in the midst of the genome war in the 1990s; arborists and entomologists tracing the destruction of the great hemlock forests of the eastern U.S. by invasive parasites; and heroic medical personnel treating the victims of an Ebola outbreak in unspeakable conditions in Africa.

The last, and most disturbing chapter (don't read it if you're planning to go to sleep soon or, for that matter, sleep well anytime in the next few days) describes Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, a rare genetic disease caused by a single nucleotide mutation in the HPRT1 gene located on the X chromosome. Those affected (almost all males, since females have two X chromosomes and will exhibit symptoms only if both contain the mutation) exhibit behaviour which, phenomenologically, can be equally well described by possession by a demon which compels them at random times to self-destructive behaviour as by biochemistry and brain function. Sufferers chew their lips and tongues, often destroying them entirely, and find their hands seemingly acting with a will of their own to attack their faces, either with fingers or any tool at hand. They often bite off flesh from their hands or entire fingers, sometimes seemingly in an attempt to stop them from inflicting further damage. Patients with the syndrome can appear normal, fully engaged with the world and other individuals, and intelligent, and yet when “possessed”, capable of callous cruelty, both physical and emotional, toward those close to them.

When you get beyond the symptoms and the tragic yet engaging stories of those afflicted with the disease with whom the author became friends, there is much to ponder in what all of this means for free will and human identity. We are talking about what amounts to a single typo in a genetic blueprint of three billion letters which causes the most profound consequences imaginable for the individual who carries it and perceives it as an evil demon living within their mind. How many other aspects of what we think of as our identity, whether for good or ill, are actually expressions of our genetic programming? To what extent is this true of our species as a whole? What will we make of ourselves once we have the ability to manipulate our genome at will? Sweet dreams….

Apart from the two chapters on the Chudnovskys, which have some cross references, you can read the chapters in any order.

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