Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Clear snot

Have you ever wondered what DNA looks like in a test tube? According to Richard Preston, it looks like clear snot. What an image!

I’ve been reading a book by Preston that I’m really enjoying. For those that know me, and how little precious time I have to read (essentially on the bus to and from work if I don’t have too many HPS phone calls to make and my eyes aren’t too tired, and it’s not too bright outside) – if I say it’s worth the time, I think it’s good. Grin.

The book is called Panic in Level 4 and is essentially a collection of behind-the-scenes stories about various things Preston, a science writer, has covered over the years. Among them, there’s the story about the time he got to visit a Level 4 biohazard lab (the place where they study things like Ebola) and his “space suit” came open. Or the story about a rare genetic syndrome where people feel an overwhelming compulsion to actually try to eat their own body parts. Or, the twins that built a super computer from mail order parts in the living room of their New York apartment so they could do mathematical research.

Preston practices the kind of journalism I really wanted to do when I went to journalism school, and yet have never had the opportunity to really delve into in a serious way and try out for size. There’s this pesky need for health insurance you see – and that means playing it safe more often than I’d really like. Preston writes his stories like they’re fiction, only they are not. They are factual and all the little details, those precious details like the fact that pure DNA coming out of a test tube looks like clear snot, come from his on-the-scene reporting. He doesn’t report about a story, he jumps in “the soup” as he calls it and experiences the story right along with the sources.

I thought some of you might enjoy the book – and if you don’t care about the book, given how much we hear about genes and DNA in our little HPS world, I thought you’d like to know that the stuff looks like clear snot. Grin!

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