Journeys to the Edge of Science

"Panic in Level 4," a collection of essays by New Yorker writer Richard Preston, is sure to please science fanatics, or anyone else obsessed with nature's murkier mysteries. Preston roves through darkly fascinating terrain, from the Congolese rain forest—home to the Ebola virus and its unidentified animal host—to the smallest chromosomes of DNA, where one wrong letter can spell a lifetime of misery for sufferers of Lesch-Nyhan, a syndrome that causes a person to self-cannibalize.

Along the way, the author meets many colorful types: the tree climbers of the Cataloochee valley, intent upon measuring the dying Eastern hemlocks; the Belgian doctor who gives a choking newborn an "Ebola kiss." But the undisputed heroes of Preston's world are the Chudnovsky brothers. Russian-born prodigies who fancy themselves one mathematician divided into two bodies, the brothers build a supercomputer out of special-order parts in their New York apartment. The machine has the herculean purpose of calculating pi—the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter—to the 2 billionth, never-repeating decimal. The Chudnovskys' colleagues think they are mad. But what the brothers know is that pi is so perfectly random, its chaos might just be the result of a design—albeit one as impenetrable as the universe itself. So they drive their computer deep into pi's depths, looking—like Preston himself—for the enigma at the core of an everyday thing.