Science writer Richard Preston has chased stories up 400-foot redwoods (see his 2007 book The Wild Trees) and into medical-research labs (1995's The Hot Zone), where his biohazard suit ripped open, potentially exposing him to a deadly, unidentified virus. In Panic in Level 4 (Random House, $26), a collection of updated stories
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OUTSIDE: Your reporting style is a bit unorthodox.
Panic at Level 4 by Richard PrestonPanic at Level 4
PRESTON:I like to lose myself in hidden worlds. It involves total immersion sometimes literally. I once ended up putting on a spacesuit and coming face to face with an unknown virus.
Do you ever get scared?
I have a fear of heights. But when you’re [up in the trees] dangling on ropes in midair, you deal with it. You can’t suppress terror; you can only work around it.
What keeps you going?
Personal obsession. For the piece on self-cannibals, I was fascinated with the notion that altering a single letter of DNA creates a disease that causes people to chew off their extremities, try to pull out their eyes, and lash out at people they love.
You weren’t afraid of them, though.
The only way I could get my arms around the story was to put my arms around two men with the disease. We became friends. Once, at a birthday party, one of them kicked me in the balls and I went down like a sack of potatoes.