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Richard Preston Interview

On January 27, 1996, THE BOOK REPORT welcomed RICHARD PRESTON, author of THE HOT ZONE (about the Ebola virus) and the recently republished FIRST LIGHT (about astronomers working at the Hale Telescope in California). The interviewers were Sean Doorly and Jesse Kornbluth, who, because of AOL tech glitches, appear as Bookpg SD. Our host was MarleneT.

Bookpg SD: Richard, it seems that a big event occurs in FIRST LIGHT --- the universe gets 50 times bigger.

Richard Preston: I suppose you could say that. I was present at the 200 inch Hale telescope in California when Gunn souped it up and made it 50 times more powerful. And that made the universe fifty times larger.

Bookpg SD: What kind of event was that for you...a humbling religious moment or a journalistic opportunity?

Richard Preston: Journalism is a lot like fishing. I used to go fishing with my brother David in Maine. We fished for salmon. You could spend days fishing and get nothing --- and then, suddenly, wham....you know when you've caught one! There were a number of moments like that. Another was when Gunn said, "Would you like to look through the scope with your naked eye?" Remember, the telescope was SEVEN stories tall! It has a mirror the size of a living room floor! We took an elevator to the top of the scope and looked down into the mirror. It showed an image of the depths of the universe. All the stars had different colors.....It was really nice.

Bookpg SD: What does FIRST LIGHT mean?

Richard Preston: That is a technical term....It means to open the mirror of a big scope for the first time. Light falls on the mirror, you see what you see. It also means the light of the big bang, which is streaming at us from everywhere.

Bookpg SD: Isn't it weird to wrap your mind around the idea of looking backwards in time?

Richard Preston: That's hard to think about....but what you're doing is looking out and seeing light streaming freely at it from the beginning of time.It takes time a billion years to travel a billion light years....so if you look out a billion light years....you see things a billion years old, you see quasars 12 billion years old....

Bookpg SD: Doesn't that give you a depressing small sense of yourself in the world?

Richard Preston: Completely. Let me give you an example. Let's talk about the earth. We are so microscopic. We are like slime on a little rock! Now, let me tell you about that rock....Imagine our sun as if it were the size of a period at the end of a sentence...On that same scale, the earth would be the size of a single cell...it would be invisible to the naked eye....On that same scale, the closest star would be 10 miles away!!!!

Bookpg SD: Your point?

Richard Preston: And we're not even finished yet! Let's talk about the Milky Way....On that same scale, the center of that galaxy would be 50,000 miles away. If the earth were to vanish tomorrow, it would not be missed! So let's talk --- for a sec --- about alien civilizations. There are untold galaxies, untold stars....It's pretty likely there's life out there.....

Bookpg SD: In a form like ours?

Richard Preston: Probably in some intelligent form. A Russian --- Nikolai Aardashev --- thought about alien civilizations. He thought they'd come in 3 types....Type 1 can take all the resources of a planet and use them --- that's not yet us. Type 2 can use all the energy of a star for its own purposes. Type 3 is really advanced --- it uses an entire galaxy. If we encounter Type 1 --- there'd be massive war. Type 2 -- we'd barely recognize.Type 3 --- we'd barely understand.

Comment: Mr. Preston, I just stopped by to say I enjoyed reading HOTZONE. As a scientist, I seldom find well written science related books that are enjoyable to read, informative and accurate. You did a marvelous job. It grabbed my attention and kept it. Thank you.

Question: LOVED the book. Any advice for an up-and-coming epidemiologist interested in working in Africa?

Richard Preston : Go to work with the Epidemiology Intelligence Service of the CDC in Atlanta --- they travel all over the world and put out fires everywhere.

Question: Richard, any comments on the possibility of ebola getting loose in the US?

Richard Preston: It's been loose --- 12 miles from AOL (in Reston, Virginia) and last year in Allen, Texas...among monkeys. Eventually, lethal ebola will come to the US and hit humans....I hope it isn't bad.

Question: What influenced you to write FIRST LIGHT?

Richard Preston: I have loved the stars since childhood. Like virtually all books, FIRST LIGHT is a work of obsession. No one in his right mind would write a book --- about anything!

Question: Mr Preston, have you written or are you about to write a book about the steel industry?

Richard Preston: I already did. The title is AMERICAN STEEL....It was published in l99l.

Question: If you were an alien and came to Earth, what would you think of the way Hollywood has made you to look?

Richard Preston: Hollywood hasn't made me look like anything! They took HOT ZONE and made a bad movie out of it...but I think aliens would be interested in a bad movie. After all, it is an experience!

Question: We might be like fish in some alien's fishbowl?

Richard Preston: That's my hypothesis....I think we live in the galactic equivalent of a national park...

Bookpg SD: There have always been asteroids...have there always been viruses like ebola...or are they modern phenomenona?

Richard Preston: The Ebola virus is probably a life form nearly as old as the earth....nearly as old as asteroids....Ebola is based on RNA...somewhat different code than DNA. RNA is more primitive, more ancient. It's thought that the first life on earth may have been based on RNA. I can assure you that long after the human species has vanished, RNA will be here.

Question: I have your book Hot Zone on tape...in the epilogue, paraphrasing here... you say someting to the effect that we humans are food (meat) for these viruses...Do you think overpopulation is creating these new viruses?

Richard Preston: Simple answer: Yes. We are a host species...and we have a population explosion...dense overcrowding....a situation ripe for biological burning....Shortly after the year 2000, we will see the appearance of tropical super-cities....cities with a population of more than 30 million.....Dakka, Bangledash...Sao Paolo, Brazil...Lagos, Nigeria....jammed cities with poor people crowded together. If a hot agent started to burn a super-city, there would be no way to stop it.

Question: Mr. Preston, what are you currently reading?

Richard Preston: Thucydides, the Greek historian. Great stuff.

Question: Are there any Ebola like viruses on the loose that are not yet named?

Richard Preston: I don't know of any. I'm sure they are there. But as they have no name, they haven't been discovered....There IS a lot of unexplained mortality in the US. People drop dead for unnamed reasons.

Question: Are you more intrested in our galaxy or viruses?

Richard Preston: Science is worthy because it's human....I love to write about the infinite deep universe outside....and the infinitely small universe within.....

Comment: Mr. Preston, please become fascinated with our oceans. I feel that is the last frontier... and there needs to be a good book written about them (in your style). Many species are yet to be discovered.

Richard Preston: I'll think about it....Thanks for having me here.....

Marlene T: Thank you, Mr. Preston, Sean and Jesse!

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