Richard Preston


American Author on infectious diseases including "The Hot Zone"

Author Quotes

When people asked him why he didn't work with those viruses, he replied, I don't particularly feel like dying.

We need to be very aware and concerned about the potential of new viruses, potentially airborne, getting into the human species from the world of nature. Ebola is by no means the biggest threat, I think. Also, we should not forget the bravery and heroism of the doctors and nurses who are working in the Ebola wards in W. Africa right now. They are seeing their colleagues die and think they may also die, but they are going in anyway, trying to save lives and stop the outbreak. One American doctor told me that he'd spent the week bursting into tears every now and then, he's lost so many friends among his colleagues.

What can the redwoods tell us about ourselves? Well, I think they can tell us something about human time. The flickering, transitory quality of human time and the brevity of human life ? the necessity to love.

The earth is attempting to rid itself if an infection by the human parasite. Perhaps AIDS is the first step in a natural process of clearance.

The Hot Zone is nonfiction, the characters are real, the quotes and incidents are fact checked. I'm a writer, got D's in high school math (sorry) but am passionately interested in my subjects. What I do is listen carefully to lots of scientists, take careful notes, and then fact check my writing with the scientists afterward. It's research. I kind of love it, getting immersed in a world that's so different from the "normal" world of my own life.

The kill rate in humans infected with Ebola Zaire is nine out of ten. Ninety percent of the people who come down with Ebola Zaire die of it. Ebola Zaire is a slate wiper in humans.

The species that live in forest canopies [redwoods] are largely unknown. Biologists say that they are undescribed. A species that is undescribed is one that has never been given a name or been identified according to what it looks like, where it lives, and how it fits into the classification system of life?the taxonomy into which all living things can be placed, from bacteria to elephants. The forest canopies of the earth are believed to hold roughly half of all species in nature. No one knows, exactly, because no one has a clear idea of how many species actually exist on the earth. There may be ten million different species on the earth, or a hundred million species. The forest canopy is the earth's secret ocean, and it is inhabited by many living things that don't have names, and are vanishing before they have even been seen by human eyes.

The virus transformed the hospital at Maridi into a morgue. As it jumped from bed to bed, killing patients left and right, doctors began to notice signs of mental derangement, psychosis, depersonalization, zombie-like behavior . . . There is no doubt that Ebola damages the brain and causes psychotic dementia. It is not easy, however, to separate brain damage from the effects of fear. If you were trapped in a hospital where people were dissolving in their beds, you might try to escape, and if you were a bleeder and frightened, you might take off your clothes, and people might think you had gone mad.

To mess around with Ebola is an easy way to die. Better to work with something safer, such as anthrax.

Occasionally they came to villages, and at each village they encountered a roadblock of fallen trees. Having had centuries of experience with the smallpox virus, the village elders had instituted their own methods for controlling the virus, according to their received wisdom, which was to cut their villages off from the world, to protect their people from a raging plague. It was reverse quarantine, an ancient practice in Africa, where a village bars itself from strangers during a time of disease, and drives away outsiders who appear.

Once the cells in a biological machine stop working, it can never be started again. It goes into a cascade of decay, falling toward disorder and randomness. Except in the case of viruses. They can turn off and go dead. Then, if they come in contact with a living system, they switch on and multiply.

One room in the hospital had not been cleaned up. No one, not even the nuns, had had the courage to enter the obstetric ward. When Joel Breman and the team went in, they found basins of foul water standing among discarded, bloodstained syringes. The room had been abandoned in the middle of childbirths, where dying mothers had aborted fetuses infected with Ebola. The team had discovered the red chamber of the virus queen at the end of the earth, where the life-form had amplified through mothers and their unborn children.

Over the course of its lifetime, a redwood may produce a billion seeds. On average, in the fullness of time, one of the seeds may grow up to become a mature redwood.

The art of climbing trees and the field of canopy science were taking quantum leaps forward. New technologies and methods of gaining entrance to the canopy were being developed rapidly. It was a time not unlike the early days of scuba diving, when Jacques-Yves Cousteau announced that an unexplored world lay below us in the sea, and that humans could go there. The canopy lay above, waiting unseen.

The connective tissue in his face is dissolving, and his face appears to hang from the skull. He open his mouth and gasps into the bag, and the vomiting goes on endlessly. It will not stop, and he keeps bringing up liquid, long after his stomach should have been empty. The airsickness bag fills up to the brim with a substance known as the vomito negro, or the black vomit. The black vomit is not really black; it is a speckled liquid of two colors, black and red. The black vomit is loaded with virus.

It showed a kind of obscenity you see only in nature, an obscenity so extreme that it dissolves imperceptibly into beauty.

Nine out of ten humans killed? And you're not bothered. A look of mysterious thoughtfulness crossed his face. A virus can be useful to a species by thinning it out, he said. A scream cut the air. It sounded nonhuman. He took his eyes off the water and looked around. Hear that pheasant? That's what I like about the Bighorn River, he said. Do you find viruses beautiful? Oh, yeah, he said softly. Isn't it true that if you stare into the eyes of a cobra, the fear has another side to it? The fear is lessened as you begin to see the essence of the beauty. Looking at Ebola under an electron microscope is like looking at a gorgeously wrought ice castle. The thing is so cold. So totally pure. He laid a perfect cast on the water, and eddies took the fly down.

Humans in space suits make monkeys nervous.

I don't believe in a biological apocalypse, but I think there is stormy biological weather ahead as the human population continues to grow. We're creating these massive urban areas in the Third World. It's like you take the entire population of California and put it in one city. Then you remove basic sanitation and medical services, and you have a ticking biological time bomb. I think we're going to see an emergency that could really challenge the global medical system and cost a lot of human lives.

I think American innovation is going to cure our addiction to oil, and it's going to create new vaccines and cures to diseases that don't even exist right now? We get ourselves into messes, but we're also really good in a crisis.

If equations are trains threading the landscape of numbers, then no train stops at pi.

I'm all in favor of looking deeply into as much as we possibly can. I'm not afraid of knowledge? With all new technology, weapons inevitably emerge? Evil comes out of the human heart. It doesn't come out of nature.

In biology, nothing is clear, everything is too complicated, everything is a mess, and just when you think you understand something, you peel off a layer and find deeper complications beneath. Nature is anything but simple.

C.J. had spoken longingly of finding the African termite queen, the glistening white sac that was half a foot long and as thick as a bratwurst, bursting with eggs and creamy insect fat, the queen you ate alive and whole, and she was said to twitch as she went down your throat.

Drilling into an old redwood would not reveal its age, anyway, because the oldest redwoods seem to be hollow; they don't have growth rings left in their centers to be counted. Botanists suspect that the oldest living redwoods may be somewhere between two thousand and three thousand years old?they seem to be roughly the age of the Parthenon.

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American Author on infectious diseases including "The Hot Zone"